Tomb Sweeping Day is an annual holiday in Taiwan and most of Asian culture. It usually falls around the fourth day of the fourth month in the lunar calendar. Although the actual date is fixed, many people will choose a time that is convenient for their whole family to gather to celebrate.
The most important part of this holiday is the cleaning or “sweeping” of the family’s ancestral gravesites. The reason the holiday has come to be known as tomb-sweeping is because the word for cleaning in Mandarin is the word for sweeping.
In Taiwan, many tombs/graves are built on hills or mountain tops. This is because it is believed these places are special and more spiritual.
In Taiwanese religious culture, graves and tombs are thought to be a little bit scary, so people rarely visit them, unlike those of us in the west. In addition, unlike many western graveyards and cemeteries, there is rarely a caretaker who tends the grounds or cuts the grass, therefore, the grass and weeds around the tomb become overgrown and unkempt. It is the family’s responsibility to keep the grave.
Upon arriving at the gravesite, the first order of business is “tomb sweeping”. This involves cleaning the grass and leaves, removing any old leftover materials from the previous year and preparing the tomb for the new year. Most families will prepare fruit and chicken as an offering to their ancestors to be placed at the grave.
Also, most families will prepare plenty of spirit money to burn at the graveside. Taiwanese people believe that after death, their ancestors continue life in another world and it is their living descendants duty and responsibility in this world to provide for their needs. Therefore, these offerings of money and things are the way they do this.
Some people also believe this is a time when you can communicate with those who have passed on. Because their lives are busy during the year doing work, school and other things, this is a special time when all the family is gathered together. Their ancestors will come to meet with them so everyone should tell their ancestors what is happening in their life. So many families will prepare a meal to share at the tomb and make a day of the event to spend out in the nice spring weather.
This is one of the most vivid expressions of filial piety still remaining in Taiwanese culture today.
In Taiwan you should be aware that traffic will be very congested during this holiday. There will be a great deal of incense burning so if you have allergies or are sensitive to this, take extra precautions or stay indoors.
What you may not know about the Western tradition called Decoration Day.
Some of my western friends will remember Decoration Day as an annual event at which the living sought to reconnect with their lost loved ones.
Each spring, some families gather in cemeteries to remember and respect their deceased by cleaning and decorating their graves with flowers. For some it holds both religious significance as well as being a celebration of life where people pray, sing and share a meal which came to be known as “Dinner on the Grounds”. Family members tell stories, and reconnect as a community.
Cleaning the cemetery and gravesite is an important part of Decoration Day. This involves removing grass and weeds from around the graves, along with leftover flowers or old decorations. Occasionally, it even involves mounding dirt over the graves to create a raised bed for the flower decorations.
Family members often leave flowers on the graves on this day. In addition to flowers, leaving items that a person enjoyed in life is a common way to connect with the dead. Figurines, hand written notes, even fishing lures and work boots are also displayed.
Decoration Day is practiced throughout the South from Virginia to Texas. A similar custom in the North, Memorial Day, was once also called Decoration Day. It was established after the Civil War to honor those who died in the military. Soon after the Civil War, Mary Cunningham Logan was in Petersburg, Virginia and observed the decorations left in the church graveyard there. She suggested the idea of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers to her husband U.S. General John Alexander Logan. Logan then created Memorial Day to honor American war dead. It seems likely that the Southern tradition helped create the national holiday.