It is a hot and humid day, with the sun blaring from the skies, so bright that you cannot see the blue skies or white clouds; just the sun. Thank goodness the grave is in a shaded spot with loads of trees surrounding it, the foliage softly hugging the perimeter, creating a little sanctuary for the family. Though they had to walk through crowds of people, once they arrived at the grave, it is as if there is no one else around, just the one grave, the concrete shell around it, the family and the picnic they brought.
The old lady makes her way slowly to the mound on the grave that marks where the body was buried. Her wrinkly hands reach out to steady herself as she climbs over the concrete steps, onto the slightly grassy mound, ignoring the rest of her family. Her arms are lined with protruding purple and green veins. Her face is wrinkly but soft. Her hair, worn in tight curls is mostly silver, with occasional black lines showing as the wind blows. She is old, but yet she seems to have the energy of a child, with a skip in her step.
She settles herself on the mound, with a little pot of tea and a teacup. From afar, you can see her lips move as she talks softly to herself. Her family is scattered around the grave, occupied with various tasks, clearly a routine. Younger members of the family, unsure about the customs and responsibilities play around the area whilst being watched by a few pairs of keen multi-tasking eyes.
The old lady calls out to her eldest daughter and asks for an orange to eat. Her daughter walks over and hands her the orange, but in her hand, she is also holding a whole pineapple and a knife. She starts to skin the pineapple, throwing each piece of skin slowly onto the green mound. She starts at the lower end of the grave, where the tombstone is and meticulously works her way around. Before long, she is holding a yellow naked pineapple in her hands, ready to be divided and eaten. The head of the pineapple, with the long green spikes and the beginnings of a flower bud is placed just above the tombstone and the stump buried in a shallow grave on the mound. The kids gather round for a piece of sweet pineapple each.
The old lady, content with her orange, slowly pats the mound. She seems to be talking. Her hands move animatedly whilst she chatters away to the wind. Her children and their children and their children all ignore her.
The altar in front of the tombstone is now laid with a sumptuous feast. They are the favourite foods of the person buried in the ground, the old lady’s husband. Next to his favourite bottle of wine and a bowl of rice and all his favourite dishes, is a small urn with burning incense and two red candles guarding each side and framing a plaque. It reads the man’s name in Chinese, next to it is the old lady’s name in red, though no one in the family other than the old lady knows how to read it anymore.
There is smoke everywhere now and the children are gathered by the kiln at the side of the grave. Hell’s money is being burnt, together with paper clothes, mobile phone, a large miniature house, cars and servants; all to ensure that the old lady’s husband has a comfortable after life. The children ask to throw things into the fire. They are mesmerised by the fire and the smoke. The women fan themselves and cough as they inadvertently inhale the smoke. The men stand around to keep sensible watch.
As they run out of things to burn, the old lady’s children gather round the front of the tombstone to check with their father, to see if he is satisfied with the meal. They throw a pair of coins and watch them as they fall. They take turns, but each time, the coins spell a ‘no’.
The old lady, watching this from the mound starts to grin. She taps on the mound and whispers, “wait for me, I will join you soon.” With glistening eyes, she slowly stands up and moves towards her children. Taking the coins from her son’s hand, she drops them to the floor and they spell a ‘yes.’ She turns around and gathers the children as the adults pack-up. Food is brought home, the ashes from the burning left to be cleaned away by nature and the tea and wine poured onto the grave.
He is left alone again for another year.
Or perhaps his wife will join him as she promises each time.
THANK YOU Che Che for your help in ensuring that the customs are accurate!
Further links to information on the festival – Cheng Beng (Qing Ming)