Tomb-Sweeping Day: Tradition v.s. Environmental Protection

The Chinese Tomb-Sweeping Day is coming. As a tradition, people burn joss sticks and paper money for family members who have passed away.

tomb sweeping
Burning paper results in both resource waste and pollution. Picture from and caption translated from the original.

When I was little, elderlies in the family told me that people who passed away are alive in another world, which is why we needed to send them money to use, through folding papers into the shape of gold ingots and burning them.

I am aware that Chinese are worldwidely known to not have any serious religious beliefs and such sayings sound like superstitions. However, the idea deserves respect as it always carries care for family and ancesters from the alive. I also read in novels that some minority groups send corpses to open grassland and wait for eagles to eat. Perhaps it is totally made up but still sounds sacred to me.

Therefore, there is no point arguing whether the Chinese tradition is superstitious and worth preserving or not, as there is no point criticizing environmentalists for forgetting traditions.

Nevertheless, conflicts between tomb-sweeping and environmental protection has not been as fierce as expected. Fewer people are burning paper on this festival now. Even alternative ways for burial have gained popularity among citizens.

degradable cinerary casket
Staff members solemnly holding degradable cinerary caskets. Picture from

In the picture above, the cinerary caskets are made from sticky rice and degradable in just a few days. It is widely used in “green burial” in China. New forms of burial includes pouring ashes into the cellar beneath flower beds, beneath grass, underground at a tree root and into an authorized sea area.

Currently the government is offering these “green burial” services to citizens for free or almost free–charging relatively cheap with subsidies. It is a gesture of popularization.

Correspondingly, new alternatives of burial indeed find their way in various provinces in China. As far as I can see, another factor helped in making it popular–high price of traditional burial.

As Chinese traditionally believe in the importance of land, we have to own a house, in resemblance of land, while we live and also have a “house” to shelter–a piece of land and a coffin or cinerary casket, after we die. Price for cemetery is growing madly just as the price for house in China. Local governments like Suzhou, Jiangsu Province also issue regulations on qualifications to buy cemetery, resulting in many comments from Internet claiming that “we won’t afford to die”.

To me, “green burial” is great and is not asking us to abandon Chinese traditions. To burn paper money for dead families to show our care and thoughts is the same with being filial to senior members in the family, which is no doubt a traditional virtue in Chinese culture. The latter might even be a better option as they can actually feel loving hearts.

Every year, Tomb-Sweeping Day is in early April, which is also early Spring for China when everything is starting to turn colorful and vive. Let’s remember that going hiking and flying kites are also traditions for this day and make the festival a real green one.


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