Last year during a trip to China, we arrived just in time for the annual Ching Ming festival, a day to honor the dead.
Families who could barely keep food on the table bought paper decorations and offerings of food and drink to leave at the graves of their departed relatives.
Also known as “Grave Sweeping Day,” Ching Ming is the time when families clear away the debris that winter weather may have left near the family shrine. They plant flowers and hang banners in a spring-time festival of their heritage. They also leave willow branches to ward off evil spirits.
Seeing the Chinese people praying to their dead and buying good luck with chickens and crepe paper nearly broke my heart driving through the city that week. But seeing the way an entire culture remembers their dead with such care and interest made me shed a tear for my own country.
We aren’t always very good at remembering.
In the United States, we have our own version of “Grave Sweeping Day”; though for most of us, it’s just a day off work and a chance to be the first one at the pool. Today we call it Memorial Day, but it used to be called “Decoration Day.”
I thought of Ching Ming this past weekend as I drove to the cemetery near the town where I was born. My mom and her sisters are among the few faithful who continue to buy flowers and decorate the graves of those who have gone before us. I happened to be in town, so I decided to check out this year’s selection.
As someone who has stared down death a few times in her life, I don’t go lightly, or often, to graveyards. Though my faith rests securely on Resurrection, the lingering scars on my abdomen remind me each day that death is my enemy. I’m letting Jesus fight that battle.
But on Decoration Day, I didn’t walk among the tombs to worship the dead; I went there to celebrate life, their lives, and the life I received from them through the hand of the sovereign Family-Maker. In fact, it didn’t seem right to go celebrate Memorial Day with my living family over grilled steaks and home-made ice cream, without first celebrating with my departed family under the granite stones and hand-picked floral arrangements.
Maybe most people my age don’t think about things like final arrangements and cemetery plots, but my people always cared about where their people were buried. They decorated their graves. They honored their lives. They remembered.
But it isn’t just for her own sake that she one day wants her own body to be buried in a cemetery and remembered. It’s for Christ’s sake. Nancy says that every time someone looks at the headstones lined up in the graveyard, they’re seeing the gospel.
I think it’s fitting to honor the bodies God gave us, the ones in which we first heard and responded to the gospel, received the waters of baptism, tasted and saw that the Lord was good in communion, and labored to build His kingdom. We are not spirits in a material world; we are flesh and blood, image-bearers of God on high. And it is in that flesh that we will one day see God, in bodies raised from the perishable to the imperishable. While it’s true that God is able to restore even those bodies destroyed by fire or lost at sea, I think those examples are beside the point. Any time God hands me an opportunity to bear witness to the gospel, to that sure and certain hope of the resurrection, I intend to take it. Even if I’m dead.
So on Sunday, I remembered my uncles Steve and Jay and Albert; I sat down for a bit with my Grandma Ruth, and said hello to Grandpa Paul, though I’d never met him. The stones shaded by the stars and stripes made me proud; the ones carved with the little lambs made me cry.
I snapped some pictures, prayed some prayers, and waved at the other mourners as they made their way through the narrow paths.
And then I went and ate ice cream with the rest of my family.
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