The Qing Ming Festival is a Chinese ceremony that dates back to the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, around 618 AD. Qing Ming translates to “pure brightness.” Its purpose is to remember the people who came before us, their hard work, and their sacrifice to make a better life for themselves and for us, their children and descendants.
Also known as the Sweeping of the Graves, Tomb Sweeping Day, or Cold Foods Day, Qing Ming is always celebrated the 15th day after the spring equinox. During Qing Ming, you sweep your ancestor’s burial plot, burn joss paper for good luck (also known as “hell money”), have a meal at the grave, and remember.
The Chinese played a huge part in Santa Cruz history, starting in the mid-1800s, thus many Chinese people were buried here. In 2013, the Evergreen Cemetery Restoration Committee, sponsored by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, with help of local historians Geoffrey Dunn and Sandy Lydon, began researching the history of many Chinese people who were buried here and restoring their grave sites. As part of this restoration, the Chinese Memorial Gate was built with funds from George Ow, Jr., a successful local businessman and resident of one of the last of the four China Towns that once existed in Santa Cruz.
Chinese people came to Santa Cruz during the Gold Rush in the mid 19th century. Discrimination by European descendants was fierce, and the Chinese were forced to do the hard physical work that no one else wanted to do. They dug the ditches to drain swampland or moved and set explosive compounds such as gunpowder to blast through solid rock to make train tunnels. Other unsavory work, such as laundry, cooking, and basic household service, were all done by the Chinese and other people of color in Santa Cruz.
Not All of Their Bones Are Still Here
As far back as 1861, there have been Chinese funeral processions to Evergreen. The processions were quite an event, with musicians, mourners, food, and incense. The deceased’s clothing, some of the food offerings, and joss paper were burned in a “Do,” or burner. This exotic display gathered most of the townsfolk, who would later partake of the food left behind. Ironically, foods left at burial sites were offerings to pacify the “demons” that might prevent the loved one from making the journey to heaven.
When the Chinese section of Evergreen Cemetery was in full use, some families practiced the excarnation style of burial, sometimes called bone picking. They removed many of those who were interred after several years and shipped their bones back to China to be reburied in their families’ or villages’ cemeteries. A brick inscribed with the deceased’s name was left behind at the site. Those who practiced this believed that if your bones did not go back to your real home, China, you were condemned to become a hungry ghost who wandered the city and the place where you worked, causing illness and bad luck to the entire community.
Bone picking and elaborate funeral processions were outlawed in the late 1880s as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Thanks to our canine forensic investigators, we know the locations of the remaining eight people. What we may never know are their names, their professions, or where in China they might have originated. Both the oven and replicas of original grave markers in Evergreen are there today as memorials to this practice.
Traditions for Remembering the Dead
Most cultures have ceremonies to remember and show respect for their dead. The Chinese have Qing Ming, the Japanese have the O-Bon Festival, the Mexicans have the Dia de Los Muertos, to name just a few. In contrast, American culture has few rituals related to death, other than a funeral or memorial service.
As our population pressures increase, the final resting place of many no longer involves markers. Scattering ashes in the ocean is more popular than ever. Today, many families have photographs, stories, and other media to remember their loved ones. Memorial activities are experienced privately or during family gatherings.
When you visit a historical cemetery, you can remember the lives of others, admire the accomplishments of ancestors, or simply sit beside their last resting places. Participating in its care can be a reconnecting experience. Come on out to Evergreen Cemetery and celebrate Qing Ming with the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History on Saturday, April 2, 2016.
This article was written in collaboration with Sangye Hawke, Santa Cruz author, Evergreen Cemetery Restoration volunteer, and local history researcher. You can get a copy of her recent book, Ghosts in the Gulch, at Bookshop Santa Cruz. All proceeds benefit Evergreen Cemetery restoration.
- Evergreen Cemetery. Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History website.
- Qing Ming Festival and Work Party. Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History website.
- Personal communication with Sangye Hawke, Santa Cruz author, Evergreen Cemetery Restoration volunteer, and local Santa Cruz history researcher, March 2016.
- The Bone Pickers: Appeasing the Hungry Ghosts. Secret History section, Sandy Lydon’s Central Coast Secrets website.