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Coronavirus

New COVID-19 Risk: Annual Chinese “Tomb-Sweeping” Holiday

Authorities in China and Taiwan are worried that gatherings at cemeteries for the customary holiday to honor ancestors could spark another outbreak.

A staff member distributes flowers at a cemetery in Jinan, in eastern China.
A staff member distributes flowers at a cemetery in Jinan, in eastern China.
Laura Lin

The Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day, is an important annual rite for Chinese families to pay respect to departed loved ones — the cultural equivalent of the Christian holiday, All Souls Day. But as the country is slowly recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities are worried that the often crowded public occasion could spark new outbreaks.

Local governments have urged their citizens to review their usual plan on visiting cemeteries, and even consider an online alternative. To avoid mass gatherings while still allowing people to physically pay their respects, Shanghai has set up an online reservation system for its 54 cemeteries and all 160,000 slots have been booked for Saturday, reports Shanghai-ist.

But special arrangements have been made this year to allow survivors to honor their ancestors virtually, either by watching a broadcast of the traditional ceremony performed by members of the cemetery's staff, or through a personalized, live-streamed ceremony for which they can hire "professional tomb sweepers."

Visitors will be limited to 10 at a time, with all required to wear a mask and have their temperature taken.

Taiwan, which has been largely spared from coronavirus, has seen a slight uptick of cases in the past two weeks, (300+ infected, 5 deaths) — and the same fears are now hanging over the long holiday weekend. Taipei-based Business Weekly reports that some one million Taiwanese people are expected to travel home for Qingming, which take place nowadays mostly at a columbarium or temple where families store the funeral urns of their dead.

Virtual ceremony is a new option— Photo: @文物医院 on Weibo

Many Taiwanese report that they will drive home to avoid taking the train. Even more measures are being taken by local authorities. Not only has the public been encouraged to start paying their respects earlier or later so as to spread out the flow of people, visitors will be limited to 10 at a time, with all required to wear a mask, have their temperature taken and their hands sterilized before entrance.

Online homage is also an increasingly popular alternative, with Chinese-language Apple Daily reporting a six-fold growth in the wake of COVID-19. With just a few clicks, users can request a virtual ceremony of flowers, candles and a funeral service professional burning incense and paper money.

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