Tomb Sweeping Day in Penang, Malaysia

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Tomb Sweeping Day is a reaffirmation of the Chinese ethic of filial piety. Taking place on the 15th day from the Spring Equinox (around the 5th of April), Tomb Sweeping Day is an opportunity for celebrants to go visit their ancestor’s tombs and pay respect to them by praying before them, sweeping away debris, by weeding, and offering food and drinks, chopsticks, and joss paper gifts which are burned. In addition, visitors sometimes place paper money at the site to be burned, or they leave coins, to ensure that the deceased have what they need.

This day is a tradition for many Chinese families. Year after year, parents take their children to visit the graves of their ancestors. In times past, parents told their children the names of these ancestors, but nothing was written down, so eventually, children who grow up know where the gravestone is located, they know the relationship perhaps, but they have never been taught how to read Mandarin Chinese characters, so in time they forget the name of their grandparent or great-grandparent. The ability to read Mandarin Chinese characters is fast disappearing in Penang and elsewhere, and it is a real challenge to get good translations in the right dialect to render the names properly, even though one has a clear photograph of the stone.

You are lucky if you can find a relative who can take you to an ancestor’s grave, whether he knows the name of your ancestor or not, because there are many cemeteries in Penang and many gravestones in each cemetery. In addition, these cemeteries are overgrown with jungle most of the year. Right before Tomb Sweeping Day, the trustees of the cemeteries will have the overgrowth burned down, so that the gravestones are visible. Sometimes, a keeper of the list for that cemetery will be there on Tomb Sweeping Day to help visitors find their ancestor’s graves.

Finding graves at other times of the year and getting an accurate translation is a challenge. It would be wise for genealogists to identify contacts within the family who can help locate these graves, even though they can't read the Chinese characters, or scholar types who can read the characters and translate them properly. It will be worth the effort, as these stones will often give a abundance of genealogical information.

Submitted October 31, 2013