Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, reading group, or Commonweal Local Community? Click here for a free discussion guide.
Growing up, I learned to approach death and the afterlife not with dread but with a sense of excitement. Every April, my extended family—like many throughout the Chinese diaspora—observed the Confucian holiday of Tomb Sweeping Day. We would gather at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn to visit the graves of my paternal grandfather and several other relatives. First, we’d tidy up the greenery around their tombstones, add fresh flowers, and lay out elaborate picnics of food and wine above their graves. Then, we’d burn incense sticks and spirit money so they could buy items they’d need in heaven. A whole roasted pig was also part of the picnic offerings. It’s a common practice of this tradition, one we still observe to this day.
No matter where it’s celebrated, Tomb Sweeping Day is a joyous, festive occasion, not at all somber. Children laugh as they chase each other around the graves. Adults share stories about their departed loved ones while eating their fill of tasty dishes. The food and flowers and incense are offerings to the dead, but so are the laughter and conviviality among those gathered. They are channels through which those buried beneath are reintegrated into the community above.
Death Is Not the End, on view at New York City’s Rubin Museum until January 14, 2024, is also a kind of offering, gently inviting visitors to ponder their ambivalence surrounding this ineluctable feature of human existence. The show gathers fifty-eight works of Tibetan Buddhist and European Christian art from across twelve centuries, gracefully illuminating how the two religions understand death and the afterlife. (As a cross-cultural religious person, the show felt deeply personal to me; I am Christian, my parents are Buddhist, and together we observe many traditions of Chinese folk religion, which draws from Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.) Instead of dwelling on differences, curator Elena Pakhoutova has thoughtfully organized these beautiful prints, paintings, and ritual objects around three major themes that the two religions hold in common. There’s “The Human Condition,” which emphasizes the inevitability of mortality that awaits all living beings; “States In-Between,” addressing ideas of purgatory, limbo, and the bardo; and “(After)-life,” centered on images of resurrection, transformation, and heaven.