The conversation took a morbid turn and we started talking about how we would like our remains deposed of after we died. Having lived in two densely populated cities all my life, the possibility of a burial has never crossed my mind. Land, especially what little there is in Singapore or Hong Kong, should be reserved for the living, not the dead.

Honouring the dead: Ching Ming Festival begins in Hong Kong

The other option is cremation, but ashes in an urn interned at a columbarium does not appeal to me either. Besides, it is quite likely that most physical memorials that contain the remains of the dead, be they graves or niches, would be neglected eventually. For example, if my cremated remains were to be entombed in a niche after I die, my niece and nephew will probably visit my little cubbyhole every year on the anniversary of my death or during the Ching Ming Festival (which falls on April 5 this year), but I am sure their children and their children’s children will not do so because I will be a total stranger to them.

Even if one had grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on, there is no guarantee – certainly not these days – that they will come every Ching Ming (Qingming in Pinyin) to pay their respects to a relative whom they don’t even remember or know. In time, the grave or niche will eventually be razed and the remains and no one then would really care.

My dim view of future descendants notwithstanding, Qingming is still a major event for many people in the Greater China Region and in ethnic Chinese communities elsewhere. It is a time when people remember the dead members of their family, and the form it takes can range from the very elaborate, with food, incense and paper offerings going up in flames at graves or niches, to the simplest gestures like lighting incense and offering flowers before an ancestor’s spirit tablet in the privacy of one’s home or saying a prayer. Nowadays, one can even offer Qingming prayers on the internet.

Ching Ming around the world: images of China’s festival of the changing season, tomb-sweeping day and honouring ancestors

However, Qingming has not always been about the dead. It began as a marker of spring and the genesis of life. According to an ancient text, “it is the time when the myriad things emerge and grow, when all things are clean (qing) and bright (ming). Hence, ‘Qingming’.” As one of the 24 solar terms (jieqi) on the traditional Chinese calendar, Qingming was one of the important markers of an agricultural society.

The association with dead ancestors came when Qingming merged with two other festivals: the Hanshi and the Shangsi Festivals. Hanshi (“cold food”), which occurred a couple of days before Qingming, commemorated the fiery death of a loyal retainer of Duke Wen of Jin (697-628BC), a powerful lord during the Spring and Autumn Period. On that day, people were not supposed to start any fires and had to eat cold foods. It was also a time for tidying up the graves of ancestors and making offerings to them.

Ching Ming grave-sweepers enjoy a more costly festival in Hong Kong

The Shangsi Festival, which fell on the third day of the third month of the traditional calendar, also involved grave cleaning but it had a very interesting aspect. It was also a day when “free love” was sanctioned. Flirting, trysts, and even carnal relations between unmarried couples were allowed for that one day. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the Hanshi, Qingming and Shangsi Festivals were merged into the Qingming Festival in most parts of China, with the main emphasis on remembering and worshipping one’s ancestors.

While ancestors have a weaker hold on modern-day Chinese (most of them don’t even know the names of their great-grandparents), this Thursday is a good time to remember those who had loved us when they were alive, and to give those who are still alive a phone call.