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Sweeping the Graves

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: We had a chance early this past spring to visit members of a Chinese family as they honored their ancestors at their graves. It is the belief of many Chinese that there is an ongoing spiritual connection between them and their forebears. They venerate them, pray to them, and take gifts to their graves. Our guide was Jan Lee, a third-generation resident of Chinatown in New York.

JAN LEE: Chinatown has been described oftentimes as a village within the city. There’s a certain pride in passing on the culture and every tradition possible so that the younger generation understands where they came from.

The Chinese have a belief that you don’t exist on your own, that there is this continuum.

We observe certain traditions within our household, and that includes making sure that my grandfather’s altar, and now my father’s altar in my mother’s house, has food during the holidays, for instance during the Chinese New Year.

Home altar

Home altar

We’ve been observing for many, many, many decades this tradition of going to the graveside and sweeping the graves and planting flowers and bringing offerings of food.

When my grandfather was planning for the future of the Lee family, he had the foresight to purchase a large family plot in Evergreen Cemetery. It had all the benefits of being not only a beautiful site, but a great place for cosmic energy — feng shui.

Once the candles are lit, it really signifies the connection between us as mortals and our ancestors’ spirits and that we’re opening sort of a gateway to communicate with them. And when we light incense, we pray. It’s the time when they get to join in the feast that we bring to the cemetery, and that includes offering them wine, and that includes burning money so that they have money to spend. It’s all the idea that, by burning it, you’re bringing it to them.

Jan Lee

Jan Lee

We bow three times because there’s a belief that the spirit actually splits. In the Chinese belief, one of your souls will go to heaven or hell depending on your past deeds, and one is interred. But there’s also a part of the spirit that stays among us, and that’s the spirit that we call on when we need help.

Once the candles are finished, it signifies that the spirits have finished their meal and we can partake of the food that we brought.

I think everyone in my family still believes that my father’s with us. That belief comes from starting when we were very young going to cemetery and having a family altar in my family home.

The connection to the ancestors is something that I think we all feel important to us, so it’s never been an idea of obligation. It’s our choice.