Published: 14:46, April 12, 2024
‘Tomb sweeping’ gets digital boost
By Li Lei

Paying tribute to ancestors through online memorials has gone from pandemic necessity to growing trend

A couple takes bouquets of flowers to a cemetery in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, on March 16, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

During the pandemic lockdowns, virtual memorials gained popularity 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 (AI) 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 an example 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 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 short message.

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.

Volunteers distribute flowers as they promote a more modern and civilized tomb sweeping in Hefei, Anhui province, on March 26, 2024. (GE CHUANHONG / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Gurenju is the brainchild of Wu Bingyang, a self-taught programmer from Hubei province. Wu, now CEO of Nantong Gurenju Info Tech Co, 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 Wu.

What most vexed 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 old Wu’s virtual memorial also had to first create an account themselves.

He 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, Wu 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,” Wu said.

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

He said that before the pandemic, virtual memorials were such a niche product that, despite painstaking efforts to promote the 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 percent were accrued between 2020 and last year.

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 tantalizing when in-person tomb sweeping is hard to achieve. But whenever possible, I believe most people would choose to mourn on site,” he said.

Students pay respect to the deceased through a website at their school in Zigui, Hubei province, in April 2023. (WANG HUIFU / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Online Remembrance, developed by a tech startup in Wuhan, Hubei province, is another virtual memorial service embedded in WeChat that has trended online.

Rolled out in 2021, it resembles many of its peers in functionality.

It allows users to create digital memorial halls for free, where they can upload photos and the personal information of loved ones. Mourners can also type in a few lines for a digital tombstone. Costing from 1 to 50 yuan ($0.13 to 6.94), users can purchase digital offerings ranging from bouquets to home appliances.

However, over the past few months, the company added a paid function powered by generative AI chatbot technology, which can chat with users in text messages simulating the tones of the deceased based on chat history and other private data uploaded to the platform, such as the user’s nickname frequently used by the deceased.

While innovative, this function brings into question the legal rights of the deceased and their representation, but it so far has not caused much concern among the public.

“The function is wildly popular, and we have rolled out a free trial period to entice more users,” said Zhang Xin, founder and CEO of startup Wuhan Zhongku Info Tech Co.

He said the service accrued about 200,000 users in just two years since its rollout at the height of the pandemic, though the annual increase had slowed last year to about 30,000 when on-site remembrance events resumed.

His team is working on another AI-powered function that can animate photos of the deceased.

Zhang said about 60 percent of the service’s users are aged between 36 and 60, while 14 percent are aged 60 and older, with many scattered in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, who he said are likely to be people living away from ancestral homes where loved ones were laid to rest.

Less than 1 percent are based overseas, including the United States and Canada, he said.

Inspired by the demographics of his user base, the CEO added, “We have been working really hard to make our product more accessible to the less-tech-savvy older users, such as using larger Chinese characters on our user interface.”

The growing popularity of virtual tomb sweeping comes as authorities advocate “fireless” Qingming as part of a broader effort to reform the country’s funeral sector. Qingming has long been plagued by superstitious and sometimes risky customs such as burning joss paper and other offerings in forested areas where many cemeteries and private burial sites are located.

With an aim to “defuse risks”, the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the National Forestry and Grassland Administration issued a circular in March requiring local authorities to seize the Tomb Sweeping Day this year to promote “civilized” and “low-carbon” options to remember loved ones.

Suggested alternatives include presenting bouquets, planting trees, and organizing group remembrance events whose fire risks are easier to manage. Cemeteries and other funeral service providers are encouraged to roll out cyber-based tomb sweeping services and step up publicity against “vulgar and superstitious” funeral supplies or practices.

The authorities also suggested fostering a culture that prizes better care for parents while alive, over lavish funerals or memorial events, guiding the public to remember loved ones through reading classics such as nostalgic poetry, which authorities said helps mourners improve spiritual richness.

Local governments have also been warned against price-gouging plaguing the festival, when funeral supplies and relevant services are in high demand.

Reservations are now required at many sites of mourning, to manage crowds, and prevent fire risks and potential stampedes.