Grave dressing at Easter

Charles 9 Comments

Posted by Vale

On my way to the crematorium today I passed a family tidying a grave, clearing it after the winter and bringing fresh flowers for Easter.

It reminded me of this description from the diary of Francis Kilvert. At the time of writing he was a curate at Clyro on the Welsh border near to Hay on Wye.

Saturday Easter Eve 16 April 1870

…When I started for Cefn y Blaen only two or three people were in the churchyard with flowers. But now the customary beautiful Easter Eve Idyll had fairly begun and people kept arriving from all parts with flowers to dress the graves. Children were coming from the town and from the neighbouring villages with baskets of flowers and knives to cut holes in the turf. The roads were lively with people coming and going and the churchyard a busy scene with women and a few men moving about among the tombstones and kneeling down beside the green mounds flowering the graves. An evil woman from Hay was dressing a grave…

More and more people kept coming into the churchyard as they finished their day’s work. The sun went down in glory beside the dingle, but still the work of love went on through the twilight and into the dusk until the moon rose full and splendid. The figures continued to move about among the graves and to bend over the green mounds in the calm clear moonlight and warm air of the balmy evening…

When the choir had gone and the lights were out and the church quiet again, as I walked down the Churchyard alone the decked graves had a strange effect in the moonlight and looked as if the people had laid down to sleep for the night out of doors, ready dressed to rise early on Easter morning.

On this blog we’ve sometimes discussed the need for special days – like the Mexican Day of the Dead – where we spend time with the ancestors. Rightly, the general view is that you couldn’t import such an alien custom but this beautiful celebration is native to us and the scenes described were only a little over a hundred years ago. And some families still take time at Easter to dress ’their’ graves.

Are there places out there where this is still a more general tradition and ritual?


  1. Charles

    I seriously hope so! I know that something similar happens in Sweden so its not that ‘alien’ to us…it still happens in Northern Europe!

    I wonder if there is any connection between this idea being lost here and the unusually high proportion of cremations in the UK? Don’t know, of course, just musing!

    I am intreiged by the ‘evil woman from Hay’!

  2. Charles

    Thanks Jenny – I was curious about her too. Kilvert names her in the diary but I felt squeamish about spreading gossip even at this distance.

    My guess is that whatever she was up to wouldn’t be worse than you see on any reality TV show these days!

  3. Charles

    Today or yesterday was grave sweeping festival in China. I understand that people still, when they can, go to parental/ancestral graves and tidy them up, burn stuff of some ritual significance. No more than you’d expect from the Confucian traditions, I guess. Anyone with a more specific knowledge of what people do?

  4. Charles

    – it’s called Qingming Festival – it’s also to do with solar cycles. That makes Vale’s find even more interesting – Easter/Spring Solstice is a cross cultural festival…
    I heard about it in Singapore, relatives buy fake paper money, paper clothes, shoes, cars, household goods ( in miniature, the clothes packets looked almost life size though -representing shirts, kimonos, suits, all things offered to the deceased who may need them in the afterlife – they either burned them or threw them into the air…

    Interesting link here – with an apparently famous chinese poem about Qing Ming ( basically trying to find a tavern!) and a link to the original myth of Tomb Sweeping Day if you have the time and inclination…

    I was thinking about the evil woman too – intrigued – what is it that makes us want to know more about her and less about the tidying??

  5. Charles

    I think its the fact that the author saw fit to mention that she was evil…makes you wonder what she’d done that made that something worth mentioning!

    There is also the Chung Yeung festival in Autumn when graves are tended and offereings made to the Ancestors.

    The Feast of the Hungry Ghosts is held in most Buddhist states, and has taken on a particularly Chinese flavour. For the whole month (often called ‘Ghost Month’) the gates of hell are opened and ghosts return. Feasts and other entertainments are organised to entertain the spirits and prevent their displeasure. Unlike Qing Ming and Chung Yeung when only the ancetors are propitiated, all of the deceased, including the contemporary and young are given offerings. Originally offerings were made to the Sangha (Buddhist Monastic community) in the hope that the merit gained could be transferred to the deceased in the hope that they would gain a human rebirth from where they could gain enlightenment. Now, however, offerings tend to be made to the spirits themselves.

  6. Charles

    All this Chinese chatter made me hungry for more, thanks GM, enjoyed the trip to the Chinese village and round your blog.. Another thing to do instead of writing a script….

  7. Charles

    Now then Jehd, flattered I am, many thanks for calling in, but back to the script with you….(don’t the psychologists call it displacement activity? I have it down to a fine art. One of my favourites is “I wonder if there are different versions of the music they’ve chosen…I’ll just check on iTiunes…”

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