Coronavirus: China wants people to worship their ancestors remotely during annual tomb sweeping festival

Mar 18, 2020

Not even honoring the dead is safe from Covid-19.

Every year around April, millions of Chinese people visit the graves of their ancestors to burn paper offerings and pay respects to the dead as part of the Qingming Festival.

This year, with the Covid-19 coronavirus wreaking havoc around the world, the Chinese government is asking families to worship remotely.

Burning paper money at an ancestral tomb in Taiwan.
Burning paper money at an ancestral tomb in Taiwan. / Photo: EPA

Qingming falls on April 4 this year, and the whole-day rituals typically involve families visiting the graves of their deceased loved ones and cleaning the tombs.

They also burn paper offerings in the shape of money, food, and other items that the person might have enjoyed on earth, with the belief that the dead still enjoy the trappings of the real world.

But the Covid-19 coronavirus, which has killed over 8,000 people worldwide, has put a damper on public activities. Concerts have been canceled, churches have moved services online, and restaurants have been forced to close.

Ancestor worship is the latest to take a hit.

Concerned about families flocking to cemeteries on Qingming, local governments in China are encouraging people to take advantage of online services that offer “virtual worship.”

(Read more: The last artisans in Hong Kong that still hand-make paper offerings for the dead)

This includes “burning” virtual incense sticks, placing virtual offerings on online memorials, and sending emojis to ancestors in the heavens.

Other services allow people to hire cemetery workers to place offerings on graves—and some will even livestream the experience to families at home.

A virtual memorial on iVeneration, one of many online services providing remote ancestor worship. Users can pick which flowers to lay on a virtual shrine.
A virtual memorial on iVeneration, one of many online services providing remote ancestor worship. Users can pick which flowers to lay on a virtual shrine. / Photo: Nora Tam/SCMP

While these services have been around for years—and garnered criticism from traditionalists who regard the practice as disrespectful—governments are actively promoting them in light of the recent coronavirus outbreak.

Singapore, which has a large Chinese population, has also advised those who are sick not to travel to cemeteries for the festival.

CoronavirusChinese traditions