Every year on the 24th day of the 12th lunar month, six days before T?t, which falls on 3 February this year, my family gets together and prepares to clear the vegetation that has grown around our ancestors’ graves since last T?t. We have many ancestral graves, but the biggest ones are those of our great-grandparents.
I woke up at 4 a.m., grabbed a hoe and rode my motorbike to the burial ground. When I arrived, I found my uncles had already started. I rolled up my trousers, took off my shirt. The two graves together had grounds of half an acre, with vegetation growing thickly.
My uncle said, ‘This area has been raised by the winding river. People pick up the dirt and sand to build their houses continuously, but these graves have not collapsed. The geomancer found the spot with favourable features for our grandparents to be buried, expecting their descendants to be healthy and prosperous.’
Each of us had a duty: one with a bush hook to clear scrub, one with a hoe to dig up grass, another with a shovel and a basket.
A relative tending a mud-covered, probably poor, grave in Ho Chi Minh City
The process of clearing the gravesites is called t?o m? in Vietnamese. T?o m? is done on an assigned day. We have heart-to-heart talks, sometimes after long separations.
Nowadays, more and more, cremation is chosen and the ashes are taken home for worship. Fewer descendants have to do t?o m?, which is in some ways regrettable.
As T?t approaches, the tradition has been to see people walking along streets carrying bush hooks and hoes with their trousers rolled up above their knees.
The living have to care for the dead by organizing death anniversaries and t?o m?. The dead also have a duty to support and protect the living. So
continues the significance of life.
Every time we weed the graves, my father says, ‘The dead people need a roof to stay under, which is the grave. When New Year comes, the graves should be cleaned up. Who is supposed to do this? The descendants are. Our ancestors celebrate the New Year, as the living people do. The dead behave the same way as the living.’
Our ancestors’ long-standing wisdom is that each individual is but a component in the engine of the life process of every family that spans generations. Each individual in the ancestor process needs to care for the past, the present and the future. Responsibilities should extend beyond oneself, so the rotation moves on.
After four hours of hard work, the two graves’ grounds now look clean and spacious. My uncle lit some incense, said prayers and made obeisance. The prayers are simple but important, ‘Would you please support and protect us so we can stay healthy and prosperous. Be healthy and prosperous.’
I remember a saying, ‘A healthy person has one thousand dreams to realize, whereas an unhealthy person has one dream only – that is to be healthy.’ The ancestors in the other world can help support their descendants in being healthy.