East vs West: Understand Collectivism and Individualism through Tombs and Graves

Although we had just celebrated the Tomb Sweeping Day in Taiwan, the idea of how different people in the east and west remember the deceased is still rolling in my head. Although we both write inscriptions on the stone to honour our loved ones, the similarity seems to stop there.

A Family Tomb in Taiwan

In Taiwan, family tombs have long been a tradition. The picture illustrates a more modern style of a family tomb with a flowing-water decoration (on the left) and a set of stone table and chairs (on the right).

The location of these tombs is chosen based on Feng-Shui, an ancient Chinese belief of harmonious energy forces from the environment. Ideally, the tombs would be surrounded by trees and water.

Photo by Toupeenseen

Photo by 富華藝雕石材 and 專業家族墓設計

Many of these family tombs are constructed by the same builders; therefore, they may look identical. What distinguishes one from the other is the family name engraved on each tombstone. The last names of the deceased aren’t usually mentioned, except for the even older tombs without the storage room (see right picture).

Cremation is a common practice in Taiwan. The urns of all the family members with a shared last name are tucked in the storage (illustrated in the picture on the left). Another thing that distinguishes the east and the west approaches to the memorial is that, in Taiwan, these urns are placed above ground, whereas most urns or coffins in the west are buried underground.

Cemetery in Australia

Although I do not pretend to be an expert on graves, I have strolled around cemeteries to read individual epitaphs. It struck me as interesting how the words are written depending on the author’s relation to the deceased.

“I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

“Nothing will ever take your place
Since you melted in a fire
I’ll never forget the warm embrace
Of my malfunctioning hairdryer.”

The inscriptions emphasize the person’s story and individuality. In Asia, on the other hand, the writings are generalized to include the entire family tree.

Photo by Connor Meakins on Unsplash

Perhaps, the idea is that a family tomb will be visited as long as the family tree lives on, while the individual graves are attended to only if those who remember still live.

It could be what death scares us the most is that we will be forgotten.

For people in Asia, minimizing the individuals to reach a collective goal outweighs the values shared by the west, to be honoured and remembered as a unique individual.

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