Tomb Sweeping Day at Chinese cemeteries
The smell of burning spirit money
Loud bangs of firework remind the ancestors that their offspring is here to honor them. The air is filled with smoke and incense. It is Qingming, Tomb Sweeping Day, an ancient Chinese ritual that is widely performed, also by descendants overseas. They offer their deceased relatives food and drinks, and burn paper replicas of things the dead may need in the hereafter: money, shirts, slippers, telephones or a Mercedes Benz. Qingming, celebrated around 5 April, marks the spring season that stands for birth and rebirth.
Many Thai are of Chinese descent. In the outskirts of every Thai city lies a spacious Chinese cemetery. The landscaping is extraordinary. The cemetery consists solely of little green hills covered with grass and connected by curving paths. No walls or fences, no ornamental shrubs or trees, no straight lanes. Those features are on the no-go list of feng shui, the Chinese system of principles to achieve harmony amongst heaven, earth and human beings. The Chinese widely use Feng shui principles to orient buildings in the landscape, and they are considered of great importance for spiritual structures like tombs.
In China, paying respect to the ancestors is called ‘making offerings to the mountains’, as it is from the mountains that all forms of life are considered to originate. A hilly site for the final resting-place guarantees that the deceased receives vitality, even in afterlife. A hill also protects the tomb against evil winds and rains.
In the Thai-Chinese layout each little hill contains a tomb in the shape of an armchair. An armchair stands for wealth and dignity and expresses the wish for the deceased to have a comfortable and proud afterlife.
In front of the tombstone are an altar and an omega-shaped porch, where family members perform their worshipping rituals, make offerings, and then feast on the food and drink they brought for the deceased.
Although the ancient rituals of Qingming are a cherished way to knot the ties between the generations of the dead and the living, they are also becoming a burden for relatives who live scattered all over the country. Modern, busy life makes the cemeteries liable to erosion, as more and more Thai-Chinese prefer the Buddhist way of cremation; urns with ashes need less space, there is no more hassle of maintaining an often expensive tomb, and family gatherings can be organized on a more convenient date than 5 April. The gently rolling of the hills gradually gets interrupted by holes: the vacated graves of the ancestors.
Horticulture deals as much with vegetation as with culture. As a foreigner in Thailand, I am often more struck by the cultural aspects of growing flowers, trees and crops than by the actual appearance of certain species.
Likewise it is fascinating to discover how plants, flowers and landscaping are applied for cultural events.