I was driving home Monday afternoon through the Chinese cemetery next to my house in Bukit Mertajam, Penang when I came across heaps of trash along the way – some were in the form of plastic bags stacked on top of one another while others were scattered around the area.
I slowed down only to find many eyes glued at me. Obviously they must have been wondering what a non-Chinese woman was doing driving through a Chinese cemetery during Cheng Beng.
Knowing better not to wind down my window to explain it was my usual route home (because talking loudly during the festival was a sign of disrespect for the dead) – I merely flashed a friendly smile.
As I drove by, I saw many people busy cleaning the tombstones, clearing away weeds and placing chrysanthemums and lilies on the tomb. Some lighted up candles while others made offerings in the form of food, joss sticks, incense, paper money and paper ornaments to honour those who had passed, enabling the dead to buy whatever their hearts desired in the afterlife.
There were also people planting beautiful tiny bright-coloured paper flags into the soil, covering the cemetery. It was truly an amazing sight. But within that same beautiful scene, I spotted trash almost everywhere.
A quick check on the car registration numbers of the vehicles parked there revealed that many had travelled from different states to honour deceased family members buried here. While it was nice to see them there, carrying out their tradition to honour their ancestors, it was not nice to see them leaving their trash behind for those alive to deal with.
I drove a little further and stumbled across banners placed by the Penang State Health Department in the middle of the cemetery – it read, “Prevent Aedes breeding. Clean up this area before you leave. It only takes 10 minutes.”
The State Health Department had also placed many huge green garbage disposal containers around the cemetery. However, I suppose the state’s cleanliness campaign during Cheng Beng fell on deaf ears as there was trash everywhere on the ground – food containers, empty plastic bottles, empty glass bottles, plastic bags, etc.
I spoke to my brother (who joins his wife in paying respect to her father during Cheng Beng), and asked if he encountered trash scattered around cemeteries in the KL area – according to him, it was the norm everywhere. He added that it was usually the duty of the committee of the cemetery associations to clean up the area after the festival.
Another quick check with my mother upon reaching home from my “cemetery observation” revealed that a few workers were seen walking up and down the area a few days earlier, collecting the trash.
Pardon me, for I do not mean to offend the Chinese, but, if you are willing to travel cross country to visit your deceased relatives, spend money on offerings which do not come cheap these days, take time off from your daily responsibilities and make an effort to show respect to those you love – how difficult is it to collect your own trash and throw it where it belongs?
My family and I live merely a few metres away from the cemetery. Any trash discarded carelessly definitely affects us. This includes exposing me and my elderly parents to the danger of dengue.
I am sure there are many families like mine who are grumbling in silence over the same issue – biting our tongues hoping not to offend our Chinese friends while they fulfil their traditions.
While Cheng Beng is a wonderful tradition to remember, honour and respect the dead – it should never be done at the expense of disrespecting those who are alive.
The truth is, cleaning the tomb of the deceased only to end up dirtying the surrounding area is an act of selfishness. And no one who is capable of showing respect to the dead should show disrespect to the living by being careless about their trash.
Fa Abdul is an FMT columnist.
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