By Brenda Goh
WUHAN, China, April 4 (Reuters) – Every year, Dai Jinfeng, who lives in Wuhan, takes her mother to a nearby cemetery to show respect to her ancestors. The corona virus changed this ritual this year.
The festival, also known as Qingming, which takes place on Saturday, is one of the most important dates in the traditional Chinese New Year calendar. As a rule, millions of families travel to take care of their ancestral graves, offer flowers and burn incense.
The Chinese authorities strongly advise or restrict practice across the country this year when fighting the corona virus, and urge citizens to rely on cemetery workers instead to do the job if they so choose.
These restrictions are arguably the strictest in Wuhan, which has been devastated more than anywhere in China since the virus first appeared last year. As of Friday, 2,567 people in the city had died from the virus, while 50,008 were infected.
Authorities in the city of 11 million people have banned all activities to dig graves in their cemeteries until at least April 30. They have also advised residents, most of whom are stuck at home due to restricted restrictions, to use online streaming services that allow cemetery staff to watch live as they perform these tasks.
These severe restrictions and concerns about the virus are why Dai doesn’t conduct the annual ritual with her 67-year-old mother, who lives alone.
“She keeps asking me if I’m coming back,” the 40-year-old real estate agent told Reuters this week when she burst into tears. “I no longer dare to call her because the grave sweep festival is coming … and it is especially important for the elderly.”
JOSS PAPER, FLOWERS
Nevertheless, some in Wuhan found alternative ways to commemorate the festival and find comfort despite these restrictions.
Residents burned joss paper on Friday, a tradition that they believe sends money and wealth to deceased relatives on sidewalks and within the confines of their barricaded condominiums.
Some people left fresh flowers, including chrysanthemums, a traditional funeral flower in Chinese culture, on the banks of the Yangtze River that flows through Wuhan.
“There is an epidemic, but this is China’s tradition, we cannot throw it aside,” said one man as he burned four stacks of incense paper and stood next to his wife.
One of these stacks, he said, was dedicated to the memory of a 29-year-old doctor, Xia Sisi, who died of the coronavirus in February after treating patients in Wuhan. They are not related but have the same last name, he said.
Still, people said it was much quieter this year. A seller of paper offers said that sales were about 20% of normal sales.
The Chinese government has said that due to the highly contagious nature, no ceremonies or funerals can be held for coronavirus victims.
China will also maintain a three-minute silence nationwide on Saturday at 10 a.m. (2 a.m. GMT) to mourn the thousands of “martyrs” who died fighting the pandemic. It asked for flags to be hoisted on half-mast and air raid sirens as well as car and train horns to “whine with grief” afterwards.
Dai, the real estate agent, said she hoped that she and her mother would be able to resume the way they normally spend next year when the epidemic ends.
Right now “it’s better to focus on the living,” she said. (Reporting by Brenda Goh; Additional reporting by Thomas Suen; Editing by Daniel Wallis)