All Saints’ and Souls’ Day is the Filipino version of the traditional Tomb Sweeping Festival (清明節) in China that is commemorated every April 4 or 5 of the Western Calendar. On this day, Chinese people light candles and lay flowers on the graves of their ancestors, as well as burn spirit paper for them.
To honor those who have come before us, here is a guide on the etiquette and traditions in a Chinese cemetery.
DO’S AND DON’TS
1. Do Follow the Dress Code
One must not wear bright and colorful clothing to a cemetery, especially red. These colors are associated with celebration and happiness – neither of which are appropriate at a place of mourning.
Instead, wear white or black with long pants. In the Philippines, Chinoys tend to wear all white at funerals and gravesites – even pants and shoes.
2. Do practice Courtesy
It is customary to respect one’s ancestors with somber behavior. One must tell the children not to run or dance around at a cemetery as loud noise is believed to anger the spirits and make them aggressive.
3. Do Offer Food and Flowers to your Ancestors
The Chinese believe that offerings provide material comfort to the dead in the Netherworld. Any food will do, but the person’s favorite food, wine, and tea are usually what is offered.
As an ancient Chinese saying goes, “Food is paramount to people” (民以食为天) so food is a respectful offering for the deceased and is sure to keep them happy in the afterlife.
4. Do Offer Joss Paper and Joss Sticks
Joss paper, also known as ghost money, or spirit money is burned at cemeteries to provide for the afterlife of one’s ancestors. Its plain color (either white or brown) is to represent mourning, while the gold or silver foil represents money. This paper may appear in the shape of gold ingots, or even towers, houses, and cars!
Joss sticks, also known as incense sticks, are believed to aid spiritual communication. For this reason, they are a common offering at temples to pray for blessings as well as an offering to the dead.
5. Do know which color of candles to use
During All Saints’ and Souls’ Day, candles are lit for relatives who have passed on. Majority of Chinoys use the dragon-like candle, which symbolizes power, luck, and strength.
To help you, here is a quick guide on the color-coded usage of candles at a Chinese cemetery:
- White – newly deceased (Less than 1 year).
- Yellow – Passed away for a year.
- Red – Passed away for more than 2 years.
Note: For the newly deceased who have reached a hundred years old, the color red has to be used.
Additionally, there are rules for the usage of candles for spouses who occupy the same tomb.
Chinoy Darwyn Mendoza says, “Light up white candles on the tomb of the newly dead even if the pre-deceased spouse has been gone for many years. Amah passed away in 2008, Angkong passed away in 2021, since they are on the same tomb, use white candles also for Amah, yellow after a year, then red.”
The same color rules apply for incense. “Use yellow incense for the newly deceased and for the pre-deceased spouse for two years. After these two years have passed, use maroon incense moving forward. (e.g. 4 yellow incense sticks for Angkong and Amah, 2 sticks each).”
6. Do not stick chopsticks into your rice bowl
If you do it in a Chinese restaurant far away from a graveyard, you might get a pass. But doing this in a cemetery – ni zai zhao shenme gui? (What kind of spirit are you trying to summon?)
By doing this, you are telling all the spirits in the vicinity that your food now belongs to the dead because it is reminiscent of an incense offering. While it is okay for the family to gather and eat together at the cemetery, one must not do this because it is considered a curse in Chinese culture.
7. Do not give joss paper to living people
Picture this: the ceremonies are all over, and you are all about to return home. Oh! There’s some spirit money left! Why not give it away?
No! If you give joss paper to a living person as a gift, you are basically telling the King of Hell to collect them. That’s right! You are asking the Chinese god of the Underworld to give the person an expressway ticket to the center of the earth. If your relative is smart, they will refuse.
And please do not give leftover joss paper to the security guards or janitors. They may be unaware of the implied meanings and accept your gift out of politeness. Don’t do it! It is better to either burn all of the joss paper, leave it at a locker in the cemetery, or take it home.
8. Do bring Talismans
A cemetery is a place with a lot of negative yin energy. To counter this, one can bring talismans for good luck. This also repels the spirits and prevents them from clinging to you. For extra safety, stop by a convenience store before going home. In the Philippines, this practice is called “pagpag.”
9. Do Place Tomb Paper
When it is time to leave the cemetery, it is good manners to stick tomb paper to the grave of one’s relatives. Tomb Paper (墓紙) is a 5 colored set of Japanese paper that is used to signify that someone has visited and the grave is not abandoned.
We hope this guide was helpful to you!
Credits to Darwyn Albert Tanya Mendoza (吳永發) for sharing his knowledge of Chinoy traditions and practices of All Saint’s Day to CHiNOY TV.