Amid the worries and changes to daily routines caused by the Covid-19 outbreak, one aspect of life—and death—continues. That’s Qing Ming festival (清明节), which is observed sometime in April each year, on the 15th day from the Spring Equinox.
Qing Ming, during which the Chinese pay respects to departed loved ones, is an important festival in Chinese culture. So should Christians participate in Qing Ming?
On one hand, participating in some of the Qing Ming practices can give the impression that Christians can continue to be involved in the rituals of other religions. The Qing Ming festival is intertwined with religious elements, such as burning incense paper and offering food and material possessions.
On the other hand, not participating at all can reinforce the often-held impression that Christians are unfilial. Not surprisingly, Qing Ming is a common cause of tensions between Christians and non-believing family members.
There are no easy nor definitive answers. Perhaps we can start by examining the principles behind some Qing Ming practices to see which are not only permissible but even agree with biblical principles. This could help us decide how we can observe Qing Ming in good conscience while being a good witness to our family members.
Remembering Our Ancestors
First, we need to remember that the focus of Qing Ming on honouring one’s ancestors may be in agreement with the Christian faith. In fact, the Bible calls on Christians to do so: both the Old and New Testaments meticulously record genealogies, showing that ancestry is not something to be taken lightly (for example, Genesis 10, 1 Chronicles 1, Matthew 1, and Luke 3).
So, perhaps one good way of participating would be to consider starting a conversation with family members on our ancestors. Indeed, Qing Ming is an apt occasion to show interest in our ancestors’ lives and even recount these stories to the younger generation.
This not only keeps the memories and virtues of our ancestors alive for future generations, but reminds us to be grateful for their sacrificial love which has given us what we have today. I am often reminded of how my family has benefited from the labour of my grandfather, who came to Singapore from his native city of Tai Shan in China many years ago.
We could even use the opportunity to teach our children the proper Chinese salutations for our elders instead of the generic “Uncle” and “Aunty” that we often use these days!
Cleaning Our Ancestors’ Resting Places
What about the Qing Ming practice of sweeping ancestors’ tombs? Our Christian belief that things on earth are temporal may lead us to conclude that the earthly resting place of our ancestors are unimportant.
But many writers in the Bible took great care to record the earthly burial places of their elders, including Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, Samuel, and even the tragic King Saul. The importance of one’s final resting place is also emphasised in Exodus 13:19, when the Hebrews took great care to follow their ancestor Joseph’s instructions—passed down from some 400 years earlier—to bring his remains out of Egypt to be buried in the promised land (Genesis 50:25, Joshua 24:32). And when Jesus died on the cross, Joseph from Arimathea ensured that his master was buried in a proper tomb (Matthew 27:57-60).
And while the eternal spirits of our ancestors would have departed from their temporal earthly bodies, we should nonetheless accord their earthly remains with dignity. After all, it was through their earthly bodies that they carried us as infants in their arms, nursed us, picked us up when we fell, and toiled to bring us up. It is thus our rightful duty to ensure that their places of rest do not fall into a state of disrepair.
So, we can in good conscience join our family members to help clean our ancestors’ tombs, pull out weeds, replace faded flowers, or even re-score the words on the tombstones. In columbariums, we can help to clean the plaques and ensure they are clearly marked, so that future descendants can locate them easily.
Loving Our Living Family
When asked why they abstain from religious rituals for ancestors during Qing Ming, some Christians would say that it is better for them to express their filial piety to parents and elders while they are still alive, than to perform rituals after they have passed on. While this is true and right, it will only ring hollow in the ears of our family members if there are no accompanying deeds!
How then, should we translate our words into tangible action?
During the Qing Ming festival, we can show our love by serving other family members. These acts of love could include sheltering them from the scorching sun, bringing drinks for them, helping older relatives, and lending a listening ear. The possibilities are numerous—may the Holy Spirit power our zeal to serve!
And of course, these acts of love continue before and after Qing Ming. The Bible contains many instructions for us to honour, love, and care for our parents and families (e.g., Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:1–3; 1 Timothy 3:5, 5:8).
Qing Ming, too, reminds us of the brevity of life and the need to seize all opportunities to love our family members who are still with us. Let us express our filial piety to our parents and elders in every way possible; and by doing so, may our love and respect, both for the living and those departed, show that we love as God has loved us. —Lee Sing Chyun
Father, give me wisdom on how to
honour my ancestors and honour my elders
in a way that pleases You,
that I can be a good testimony
of Your love to them.
Observing Qing Ming: Some Tips
- Make a note of the locations of your ancestors’ resting places (such as lot numbers, level numbers, or unit numbers). This shows that we are not simply “tagging along”, but are equally serious in remembering our ancestors.
- If needed, bring along towels, wet tissues, and other suitable tools to clean up graves and their surroundings.
- Bring along drinks, wet tissues, hand sanitisers, foldable chairs, or handheld fans for family members.
- Chat with your family about the life stories of your ancestors, and share them with the next generation.
- When declining invitations to take part in religious rituals, be mindful to decline in a polite manner and not in a dismissive or condescending way.