Tomb-Sweeping Day: What It’s All About & How to Celebrate

This year, Tomb-Sweeping Day falls on Friday, April 5th.

When we asked Americans what terms or concepts they associate with Confucianism (Ruism), about 26% selected the word ancestor. It seems that many of us remember hearing something about “ancestor worship” in high school or college.

In reality, Ru don’t worship their ancestors as gods. Instead, they show them devotion. Do you have any pictures of deceased family members in your home? Do you ever place flowers on their graves? If so, you practice ancestor devotion, too!

What is Tomb-Sweeping Day?

Much like Memorial Day in the U.S., Remembrance Day in Canada, or the Day of the Dead in Mexico, Tomb-Sweeping Day is a holiday set aside to remember the dead.

Tomb-Sweeping Day is a major festival in China (where it’s called Qingming or Ching Ming) and other Asian countries. Asians celebrate with a huge variety of colorful practices and use the holiday as an opportunity to return home and reconnect with their families.

How to Celebrate Tomb-Sweeping Day in America

Although some American Ru have adopted or modified Asian customs, it’s also possible to practice Western traditions for remembering the dead on Tomb-Sweeping Day. Here’s a simple Tomb-Sweeping ritual to help you honor your deceased loved ones.

What You’ll Need

  • A small, stiff brush, which can be purchased in any hardware or art supply store
  • Flowers
  • Incense sticks (Optional)

What to Do

  • Visit the grave of a loved one.
  • Use the brush to “sweep” the headstone or marker of any dirt or debris. Clear away any twigs, grass clippings, or debris from the grave.
  • (Optional) Place an incense stick in the ground in front of the headstone and light it. (The scent and smoke can help lend the ritual a sense of sacredness.)
  • Greet your loved one just as if they were present with you.
  • Reminisce about some of your favorite memories of your loved one. If you didn’t know your ancestor personally, you could reflect on what you’ve learned about them from others or from genealogical research.
  • Tell your loved one about what happened for you and your family over the past year.
  • Place flowers on the grave (and remove the incense, if necessary).

Why Celebrate Tomb-Sweeping Day?

Honoring your ancestors is a good way to keep their memories alive. Many people also experience a sense of gratitude for the sacrifices their ancestors made.

Tomb-Sweeping Day is also a great opportunity to gain a renewed sense of perspective on life. By honoring your ancestors, you may come to realize that your life is part of a much bigger story–one which began long before you were born and which will continue long after you have passed away yourself. You can also use this opportunity to reflect on your own actions and how they may influence your descendants.

Finally, by celebrating Tomb-Sweeping Day, you’ll be joining with millions of other people around the world in observing one of humanity’s most noble and longstanding traditions.

About the Author

Ben Butina, Ph.D.
Ben is the President and co-founder of the Ruist Association of America, Inc. and Friends from Afar, an English-speaking Ruist discussion group on Facebook. He's also the creator of Stone Chimes, a modern English adaptation of the Analects of Confucius.