TAIPEI - Qing Ming is around the corner, and in Taiwan, this means a four-day holiday to allow people to pay their respects to the dead and go tomb-sweeping.
But amid the coronavirus pandemic, they are being asked to offer prayers online to avoid community transmission.
Large religious assemblies throughout Taiwan were cancelled last month.
Big family gatherings with more than 100 people should also be called off, the Central Epidemic Command Centre said on March 25. Such gatherings include the well-known celebrations by the Taoyuan Yeh clan, which are usually attended by some 10,000 family members who fly in from all over the world.
"We have two main principles for Qing Ming virus prevention work: Large religious assemblies will be cancelled, and people will not be allowed to enter columbaria on the day of the festival," said Deputy Interior Minister Chen Tsung-yen.
The practice of going online to pay respects to one's ancestors is not new. The central government has made this available since 2014, and an Interior Ministry official said nearly 3,000 families had registered in the digital prayer system, although more people tended to use similar services provided by their local governments.
Eight cities and three counties have set up sites similar to the Interior Ministry's digital tomb-sweeping one. On these websites, one can click on the respective location where someone is buried and a photo of the burial site with a table in front will be shown. Prayers can then be offered in Chinese or Western style, with flowers and incense.
There is no option to burn joss paper for the dead online as Taiwan has been discouraging people from doing so for environmental and health reasons.
"We've seen a real growth in the number of people paying respects digitally," said Ms Wang Wen-hsiu, the deputy director of the Taipei Mortuary Services Office. "Over 33,000 people have paid their respects on our website as of March 31, while last year, we only saw 7,000 throughout the entire year," said Ms Wang.
She added that the number of people using government-provided tomb sweeping buses to public cemeteries had also declined sharply.
"Around the same time last year, about 400,000 took our tomb sweeping buses to the sites, but this year there's less than half of that," said Ms Wang.
An expert on folklore and tradition, Mr Chang Hsu-chu, approves of the government's new Qing Ming policies.
He said: "We can still prepare offerings and food our loved ones enjoyed in life and do remote worshipping. Sincerity matters the most; the ancestors will understand."