On this Memorial Day, most Americans will hear calls to remember those who served in the military and many will engage in acts to honor veterans. The holiday was originally know as “decoration day,” a day set apart to honor the graves of soldiers who died in the Civil War. This tradition is carried on today by many Americans who will place flags and flowers on the graves of veterans.
I heartily endorse decorating the tombs of veterans on days like today. It is how our culture shows respect for the dead. However, please remember how we remember. Christians are often blind to their own cultures and harshly judge the cultures of others.
Could you imagine a Christian approaching a family who lost their son in Afghanistan and rebuking them for placing flowers at his grave on Memorial Day? Sounds unbelievable? It happens every year on the mission field.
Every April, China celebrates the Qingming Festival (清明节). This holiday, also known as “tomb sweeping day,” is celebrated by taking flowers and food to one’s ancestors’ graves. While celebrations can include Buddhist rituals such as burning paper money and objects, the holiday is celebrated by the entire culture and need not include these elements.
The Qingming Festival is the only day out of the year that Chinese visit graveyards. They do not visit graves on birthdays or special anniversaries. If Chinese people wish to show respect for the deceased, the Qingming Festival is when they do it.
American missionaries often get hung up on the fact that Chinese leave food or other objects for their dead and condemn the entire holiday as a pagan practice. However, we leave flowers on graves and bury our dead in nice clothes, often with jewelry and other objects. The concept is pretty much the same. Note that in China, cremation is the norm; they have to leave objects on the graves to honor the dead in that way. Unless you’re going to argue that Americans should not decorate their graves or be buried with favorite objects (a pastor with his Bible or a soldier with his medals), then one must be cautious about critiquing this custom. There’s an old joke that goes like this:
An American and a Chinese visit a cemetery, the American puts flowers by a grave and the Chinese puts food near one. “When is your dead one going to come up to eat the food?” asks the American. “When yours comes up to smell the flowers,” replies the Chinese.
Let us honor our dead today, but let us also remember that we are employing one of our culture’s extra-biblical forms of expression. Mixed with our expressions today will be many prayers to false gods. We do not reject Memorial Day because unbelievers observe it, and we shouldn’t condemn holidays like the Qingming Festival for the same reason. Please remember how we remember before condemning how others remember.