Chinese going online for tomb sweeping, Latest World News - The New Paper

Chinese going online for tomb sweeping

BEIJING – During the pandemic lockdowns, virtual memorials gained popularity in China due to the disruption of in-person tomb sweeping.

Even as restrictions have eased, families, friends and former colleagues continue to visit online memorials on Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, and other important occasions.

Tech companies have revamped their products to go along with this enduring popularity.

Some have transitioned away from designs best suited for desktops and laptops, focusing instead on smaller screens such as smartphones and tablets, aiming to provide round-the-clock access through portable devices.

Others have employed technologies like generative artificial intelligence chatbots and animated photos to make the age-old tradition more interactive and laden with emotional value.

Created in 2013 first in the format of a website and then morphing into a built-in service on the messaging tool WeChat, Gurenju, or Home of the Deceased, is a shorthand of this trend.

One message on Gurenju, reads: “Deeply mourning my kind father Lu Shuming.” Clicking on the message ushers visitors to a digital hall dedicated to the late stage actor from Xi’an, Shaanxi province, who died from a heart attack in 2022 at the age of 66.

Inside is a portrait of Lu depicting him with a salt-and-pepper beard, looking resolutely at the camera. A detailed obituary is attached below, highlighting the award-winning actor’s career, including his performance in a play in Beijing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in 1999.

The obituary, signed by Lu’s family, said, “With over 40 years of his artistic involvement, my father has always respected life in artistic creation and adhered to drawing inspiration from life.”

The hall, adorned with white-and-yellow wreaths and decorated with funeral couplets conveying condolences and good wishes, allows visitors to present virtual offerings such as lanterns, wreaths and incense, free of charge, and leave a few lines of kind words.

Since its creation, the digital venue has garnered 8,600 views, as the memorial’s publicly accessible visiting record showed, with many occurring in the weeks leading up to this year’s Qingming.

Lu’s digital memorial and others like it flourished during the COVID-19 pandemic when on-site tomb sweeping was discouraged as part of a national effort to curb large gatherings and contain the highly contagious disease. As a result, cyberspace became a makeshift mourning space for those who died before or during the pandemic. However, even with the pandemic now behind them, the Chinese seem to have embraced cyber-based tomb sweeping, especially through mobile devices.

Gurenju is the brainchild of Mr Wu Bingyang, a self-taught programmer from Hubei province. Now CEO of Nantong Gurenju Info Tech, he first launched the service to remember his father, who died of uremia in 2006 at age 52.

“I was deeply sorry about his death, so I came up with the idea to remember him on the internet,” said the 44-year-old.

At the time, there already existed several websites dedicated to remembering the deceased, but none satisfied him.

What most vexed Mr Wu was that all such websites required users to create an account using a phone number or email address, and each time he wanted to mourn his father, he had to log in with a password. Other people who wished to show their respect at the late Wu’s virtual memorial also had to first create an account themselves.

Mr Wu believes the trouble involved goes against the purpose of letting the digital memories pass down through generations, and creates roadblocks for more distant relatives to mourn. “Passwords are easy to forget,” he said.

Therefore, he stripped the registration process on Gurenju, and instead resorted to an application-verification-display procedure, in which families file applications with the personal data of the deceased, which after being verified by Gurenju employees, would be displayed in one of its virtual memorials.

Applicants would in return receive a code made up of a string of letters. To visit the mourning place, visitors only need to search for the code or the names of their loved ones.

Gurenju was among the first mourning websites to go mobile in 2019, getting ahead of the competition.

“Shortly after we launched the service on WeChat, the COVID-19 outbreak started,” Mr Wu said.

The pandemic and the disruptions it induced in the real world, together with the convenience brought by the mobile strategy, brightened the prospect of Mr Wu’s virtual memorial project.

He said before the pandemic, virtual memorials were such a niche product that, despite painstaking efforts to promote their websites at brick-and-mortar funeral parlors, they only had 5,000 users by the end of 2019.

Now they have more than 650,000 users, of which 85 per cent were accrued between 2020 and last year.

Mr Wu said online memorials such as Gurenju had made tomb sweeping possible anytime, providing a boon to hundreds of millions of out-of-towners, but he doubts it will replace in-person mourning. “Virtual memorial is tantalising when in-person tomb sweeping is hard to achieve. But whenever possible, I believe most people would choose to mourn on site.” – CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK