Chinese Traditions of a Cemetery Visit

Having once lived in China for 11 years, I still travel there frequently. This post is from my trip to China in May 2010. View more stories from that trip and other China trips here.

I wanted to take a break from the Cuba photos to share some personal, unpublished, pictures that I’ve been holding onto. These shots take me back to Asia –  to the summer of 2010 when, after a 5 year absence, I returned to my true hometown.

Every visit to Changsha is a special one for me. Although I have only been here a handful of times before, this city in southern China is the birthplace of my mother and home to her entire side of the family. On my last trip to the city, I left with a distinct goal – to visit my grandmother’s grave and to take part in the traditional Chinese customs of a cemetery visit.

On a foggy morning, a taxi took us away from the urban city centre and towards the cemetery where my grandmother is buried. When the narrow roads merged into eight-lane streets and the packed retail storefronts turned into sparsely located apartment buildings, I knew we were getting close.

Even after a long taxi ride, we had to walk another kilometer within the cemetery to the hillside where my grandmother was buried. My grandfather, who spent months here picking out the exact spot for my grandmother’s grave, leads the way.

Carefully planted trees and bushes provide shade and greenery among the graves. As we descend down the hill, I felt lost in the seemingly endless rows of headstones. Chinese cemeteries are located on hillsides since this is thought to improve feng shui – the higher the grave, the better.

Couples are buried together. The tombstones read vertically, with the left half dedicated to the woman and the right, the man. With each grave I pass, I stop momentarily to study the photographs of the deceased, imagining the life story behind each one.

When we finally arrive at my grandmother’s grave, I help my grandfather clean the headstone. Fresh flowers are set. Candles and incense are lit.

A pair of lions sits at the front of the grave. Lion symbolizes power and prestige in Chinese culture. They are also believed to have strong protective powers; thus, their presence guards the grave. In front of these guardian lions, my grandfather burns joss paper and prayer money, in order to provide my grandmother with sufficient income in her afterlife.

The cemetery is so packed that only a narrow path separate one row of graves from another. My grandfather places the burning joss paper into a metal bucket to contain the ashes.

When the last of the prayer money finished burning, my father arranges for firecrackers to be lit at a designated chute. It is believed that the sound of the firecrackers drive away evil spirits. As the firecrackers fell down the shoot, echoing as they did, I thought of all the Chinese traditions I have yet to understand and yet to learn. But somehow, when we left the cemetery, I already felt closer to my Chinese heritage.


6 responses to “Chinese Traditions of a Cemetery Visit

  1. “When the last of the prayer money finished burning, my father arranges for firecrackers to be lit at a designated shoot” or ” … designated chute”?

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