- Local governments in China are strictly limiting access to cemeteries amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus this Ching Ming Festival
- Virtual grave sweeping services existed before the pandemic, but it has given more people a reason to observe the tomb-sweeping festival online
In Beijing's Jiugongshan Public Cemetery, staff silently perform rites for 25-year-old Liu He's grandparents, cleaning their tombstones, placing flowers and fruits, and taking bows on behalf of Liu's family a day ahead of Ching Ming Festival, or China's "tomb-sweeping day".
At the family's home, Liu's mother also bows three times in the direction of an iPhone surrounded by fruits and incense, which is streaming the proceedings live.
"Mom and dad, sorry we can't come to visit you this year due to the coronavirus," she says. "Take care there."
In the country's Confucian culture, where filial piety is central, millions of Chinese people traditionally flock to cemeteries on Ching Ming Festival to pay respect to their ancestors, cleaning their tombs, burning paper money and symbolically offering food and drinks to the dead.
"To (my parents), being present to pay tribute on Ching Ming is not only to prove you're not a lazy mourner. The festival is more about bringing people together and catching up with family or friendsLiu He
Last year in Shanghai and Nanjing, the two biggest cities of southeast China, over 2 million and 5.7 million people respectively performed tomb-sweeping activities during Ching Ming.
This year, however, local governments in China are strictly limiting access to cemeteries amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, urging the public to make reservations online to visit graveyards or try virtual tomb-sweeping instead as the country enters the two-week period around the Ching Ming Festival on April 4.
This makes tomb-sweeping just one of the latest, and most ancient, Chinese activities to receive a digital push amid the lockdowns and social distancing required as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
Virtual grave sweeping services existed before the pandemic, with those living overseas among their target groups. But the new restrictions and fears over the spread of the coronavirus have given even those living in the same cities as their ancestors' tombs a reason to observe the traditional festival online.
When Beijing announced that it would be restricting visits to the cemetery to prevent people from gathering last week, Liu chose not to sign up for one of the limited time slots as he was worried his 50-something parents would be vulnerable to the virus.
Instead, he booked the virtual tomb-sweeping service for 480 yuan (US$68). "I don't want my parents to visit on-site, it's too risky," he said.
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Public cemeteries in other cities including Shanghai and Chengdu are offering similar services or apps. The Changsong Temple Public Cemetery in Chengdu estimated that it received 8,000 orders for virtual tomb services for the upcoming festival, almost twice the number from last year.
Search engine Baidu's index also shows that searches for "online tomb-sweeping" and "online worshipping" have been climbing since late March.
As some consider the cost of commissioning cemetery staff to sweep tombs on the family's behalf too high, there has also been a surge of interest in more budget-friendly options.
Some cemeteries offer online services where users can click on "offerings" to decorate an image of a tomb with fruits, flowers and incense. They can also write the names of the deceased on the tomb and leave messages.
Chinese funeral service firm waheaven.com also allows users to create virtual shrines complete with candles, incense, and flowers for free. For a fee, they can upload additional photos, offer more virtual gifts to the deceased or even pick songs to play on the dedicated page for the shrine " just like MySpace, but for those who have passed.
Ran Guangjun, the platform's vice-president, said that more than 300,000 online shrines " almost a tenth of the total 3.6 million shrines created since the website was founded in 2009 " were set up since the outbreak started in January.
According to Ran, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a surge in people creating online shrines for medical staff or patients who died in the pandemic, including doctor Li Wenliang " one of the first "whistle-blowers" to warn of a coronavirus outbreak who himself contracted the virus and died in February.
Coronavirus: China limits access to cemeteries for tomb-sweeping festival
For the upcoming Ching Ming Festival weekend, Ran said he expected traffic to increase as well: "We can't estimate how many, but there could be another traffic surge."
Keping Wu, an anthropologist at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, said that although the pandemic had given the trend towards online funeral and tomb-sweeping services a push, other factors also contributed.
"Besides the pandemic, migration among the population has made it harder for people to visit home to perform tomb-sweeping as often," Wu said. "The country's funeral reform campaign has also created space for such innovation " buying a tomb is getting more expensive."
The Chinese government has in recent years moved to phase out traditional ground burials and replace them with cremation as a way to save space, as well as encouraged people to find more environmentally-friendly options to burning paper offerings or firecrackers.
Some cities such as Jiangsu have been trying out space-saving and green options such as sea burials, which entail scattering the deceased's ashes in the sea, or tree burials, where trees as planted over burial plots in place of tombstones.
"When these new forms of burials become more mainstream, people will still need a way to commemorate or pay tribute to their passed loved ones, and online tomb-sweeping could help with that," Wu said.
Covid-19 rules push down paper offering sales ahead of Ching Ming Festival
Innovations like virtual shrines and gifting could not only help reduce the environmental and space problem, but also allow people to pay their respects with fewer constraints from time or distance, Wu said. Some may also feel more comfortable expressing their emotions on online message boards compared with crowded graveyards, she added.
But while digital shrines and memorial halls allow more space for customisation and flexibility, they are also vulnerable to the risk of being maliciously hacked and destroyed, Wu said, adding that it can be controversial to put photos, videos and audio recordings of the deceased online due to privacy and security issues.
Another major challenge would be social acceptance, especially among the older generation. "Chinese culture values physical participation to show one's respect and such online services may not satisfy the emotional and psychological need for some," Wu said.
"There's definitely a generation gap on adopting such online services, and more questions to be addressed, so making it mainstream would still take another generation," she added.
Liu, a case in point, said it took him hours to convince his parents to stay home this year for Ching Ming Festival due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"To them, being present to pay tribute on Ching Ming is not only to prove you're not a lazy mourner," the marketing manager said. "The festival is more about bringing people together, catching up with family or friends who come here from different cities or countries " that's what this festival means to them and to an extent, I agree."
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