28 March 2019 by Roy Preece
Taiwanese are very religious people. The custom in Taiwan was for each family to have its own ancestral tomb because ancestor worship is an important part of Taiwanese life. A special day is devoted each year to weeding and tidying the tombs of ancestors, Tomb Sweeping Day, which is a time also for family reunions to pay respect to the ancestors. This video shows the ceremonies of a large and important family in Taiwan whose relatives come from many countries too.
In England only, very aristocratic families would have their own family vault (underground) or mausoleum (temple) for their ancestors. In mediaeval times important people such as knights or merchants might have elaborate tombs inside the churches, or be buried in individual stone vaults under the church floor, marked with brass inlays which are now the object of the popular pastime of copying by ‘brass rubbing’. Even some English kings are buried in this way: for example, ‘mad’ George III is buried in the floor of St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. Famous lives have been celebrated with many fine buildings, sculptures, paintings, music and poems.
Most bodies, however, are buried in the ground in simple earth graves, although there is usually a memorial stone (gravestone), often of historical interest, or a stone border, or just a small mound. Some rich merchants had small stone vaults built above ground, outside the church, such as the famous ‘Bale Tombs’ of rich mediaeval wool merchants in the Cotswolds.
Most graves are sited in churchyards, an enclosed communal area of land surrounding a church or chapel, or in cemeteries managed by the local council. These churchyards have been consecrated as holy places. In the past non-Christians and Christians who had committed some serious sin such as suicide would not be allowed to be buried there.
There is no special day for tidying the graves; it is, in fact, the job of the church or council authorities, but is often neglected through lack of staff. Relatives do often choose to cut the grass and tidy their family graves and regularly place flowers there as a sort of respect or to ease their own grief, but this would rarely go further back than the parents’ generation. To ease problems of maintenance some churches now flatten all the graves and move the gravestones to the side of the churchyard, a practice which is unpopular with relatives.
It is possible for a burial to be located anywhere in England, with permission; but this is unusual. In my old village, there was a large tombstone, dating from the eighteenth century, in an overgrown orchard. It marked the grave of a Quaker, a strict Christian sect which rejected the established churches. The Church of England was very corrupt at that time, and the Quaker’s gravestone is engraved with the words:
I would sooner lie here midst thorns and briers, than in the church with thieves and liars.
Although the dead and their graves are respected, there is no idea in England now that the ancestors need our help in their afterlife, as there is in Taiwan; but in Mediaeval times there was a doctrine that souls had to be purified in the afterlife in a place halfway between heaven and hell, called purgatory, before becoming fit for heaven and that this time could be shortened by the prayers of those remaining. Many mediaeval churches have small chantries or chapels where prayers were said for the souls of particular persons who left money for this purpose. It is debatable whether the Catholic Church still believes in purgatory, but there is a similar belief in Chinese Buddhism.