NANNING, April 3 (Xinhua) -- Although she was thousands of miles away, Beijing-based accountant Yang Jingjing was still able to "visit" her father's gravestone and offer virtual sacrifices with a few clicks of her mouse.
The ritual performed on a government-sponsored website brought some comfort to Yang, who was unable to pay a personal visit to her father's resting place in southern China's Guangxi as part of this year's Qingming Festival.
"It's hard for me to make that long journey, but I felt relieved and a lot less guilty when I saw his headstone," Yang said.
China's Qingming Festival, which falls on Wednesday this year, is an important occasion for mourning the dead, but observing the annual ritual of tomb sweeping is becoming harder for the country's younger generations, many of whom now live and work far from their hometown.
Some practices during the festival, such as burning joss paper and setting off firecrackers, are frowned on because of air pollution concerns, prompting Chinese funeral authorities to search for alternative ways to honor the dead that are more environmentally friendly.
The website Yang visited is just one pilot project initiated by the government of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region to digitalize its cemeteries for online mourning.
The project has seen the creation of web pages for over 12,000 headstones, which are based on photos taken in graveyards in four cities, in the run up to this year's Qingming Festival.
Liang Yujun, a director at Guangxi's civil affairs department, said the virtual cemetery idea was inspired by concerns raised by people who could not afford a trip home to honor their deceased friends and families.
"Many who live in far-flung regions or foreign countries observe the festival but are not always able to return home to pay homage," Liang said.
By avoiding the need to make long journeys, and also cutting down the amount of sacrificial burning, Li said the website also helped nurture a greener condolence culture. This will in turn boost China's campaign to promote eco-friendly funerals.
"China's funeral reform encourages tree and sea burials in order to save land resources," said Liang, "and creating online mourning activities is one step toward this goal."
China's cemetery space is in short supply, and this has fueled seizure of precious farmlands and shored up cemetery prices. However, efforts to promote more eco-friendly burials have gone largely unrewarded due to the ingrained cultural belief that stresses "finding peace in the soil."
While the mourning website hopes to attenuate this mentality, many Chinese netizens said the millennium-old tradition of visiting graveyards and performing on-site sacrifices may work against it.
"It sounds like playing online games, and I doubt that the older generations will feel comfortable with being remembered in this way," said a netizen on China's popular microblogging site sina.weibo.
Some sociologists also expressed concerns that the website, which makes the ritual too easy to perform, may damage the cultural essence of the Qingming Festival.
"Online mourning is at best a supplement, and it will never replace the popular mourning practices of the Qingming Festival," said Gan Anshun, professor at the Guangxi Academy of Governance.
"That said, the website will still benefit busy urban residents by creating space for them to place condolences and tributes to the dead," he added, " and this is in line with the tradition of Qingming."