Monday, 8 August 2011


THE CHINESE observe All Souls’ Day as if they are going on a picnic. This is what I discovered when I married into the Lee clan.

The clan elders would see to it that the younger generations of Lees attended and performed all the rituals. Usually, the only way to dodge All Souls’ Day would be to fall ill – or to produce astrological evidence that indicated an unfavourable outcome if you had to step across strangers’ tombs to get to your ancestors’. You see, certain spirits take offence to certain people stepping over or even walking past their resting places.

On a typical All Souls’ Day, the Lee clan would assemble in the home of the eldest Lee. Then the entire motorcade would proceed to the cemetery, winding slowly along the narrow, badly maintained roads to reach their ancestral burial sites.

I remember the big baskets full of goodies – one for each soul. In each basket were quantities of rice, roast pork, boiled eggs, wine and fruit. Grandmother, in addition to her basket of offerings, had two large paper trunks filled with paper clothes – to be delivered to her spirit world by flame. Pocket money for the departed was part of the fiery consignment, the paper currency folded in the shape of gold ingots used in old China. All this unearthly paraphernalia had to be unloaded from the boots of our cars and transported manually to the gravesides.

First, the tombs had to be swept, and joss sticks and candles lit. One of the elders served as emcee for the ritual. He would announce each family member as he or she executed the three bows of fealty, before sticking a joss stick in the urn. After a decent interval, during which the spirit of the ancestor would have had ample time to savour the food, the living members of the clan would make themselves comfortable and consume the edibles. The same ritual would be repeated a each tomb. Afterwards, the Lee descendants would disperse, taking with them the empty baskets, and the picnic would be over.

Each burial site had been selected with the advice of a geomancer well-versed in the language of Wind and Water (feng shui). The future prosperity of the Lee clan depended on auspicious interment of the ancestral bones; and one of the significators of prosperity was the number of descendants. Our geomancer was undoubtedly a competent one, for the Lee family is considered large even among the Chinese.

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