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Butte honors its early Chinese residents with ancient tomb sweeping ceremony

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Posted at 12:17 PM, May 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-17 21:10:55-04

BUTTE — Butte’s often overlooked Chinese residents were being memorialized on Saturday in an ancient ceremony that honors the dead and ancestors known as a tomb sweeping ceremony.

A Qingming Festival was held at Mount Mariah Cemetery in Butte that includes burning fake money to speak with dead ancestors, sweeping the graves and placing willow sprigs at the headstones. Many people from Butte’s early Chinese community were buried in the corner in the back of the cemetery.

“The Chinese were segregated, even in death. They were excluded from citizenship but also discriminated against in many ways daily. The Chinese, of course, were a very big part of those early decades of Butte from the 1880s on,” said Pat Munday, who organized the event for the Mai Wah Museum.

And as they sweep the graves, they drink wine, snack, and fly kites—because while it is a somber event, it’s also a celebration.

“That is so awesome. I never thought I would see this anywhere in the United States and in Butte, well, I think Butte is right now, how do you say, my favorite city forever,” said Shi Yan, a native of China now living in Butte.

During the ceremony, Shi Yan spoke to the spirit of her grandfather who died seven years ago.

“ I said, ‘if you have any wish that you didn’t, like, achieve, you can talk to us in our dreams, so we can know,’” said Yan.

And hosting a ceremony like this is just one of the many things that makes Butte very unique, but for some people, it’s also very special.

“I know that growing up, Qingming was, it was really important, and I remember all of this, you know, it’s really important,” said a guest who was originally from China, but now lives in Deer Lodge.