Confucius's tomb

Burial sites are often in wooded areas or some other natural setting picked out by a fengu shui master. Sometimes a long hike is required to get them. After the funeral procession arrives, the coffin is slowly lowered into the grave with a pulley system by family members while music is played, priests chant and mourners wail. The mourners throw handfuls of dirt on the coffin, a gesture that harks back to the days when relatives carried earth to the grave. Sometimes the mourners are professionals who cry and wail at a funeral for a fee.

Describing a funeral for a descendant of Confucius, Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: “A group of women cried and kowtowed before a mound of fresh earth...The tomb offerings were simple: oranges, apples, a boiled chicken...The men stood nearby, watching, and one of them offered me a cigarette...The wailing continued for ten minutes more, and then stopped abruptly...A man crank-started the tractors and they putted off in the mist...They had left the chicken, but packed up the oranges.”

Sometimes more paper spirit money and objects are burned and tomb stones are raised that have the names of descendants and living relatives. Describing another burial he witnessed Hessler wrote in National Geographic: “The family members took turns prostrating themselves before the tomb...First the men kowtowed, burning paper money and moaning softly...the women kowtowed, their wails echoing across the valley.”

In an important ceremony, called “dotting the chu,” the final character on the soul tablet is completed with special vermillion ink or even blood. After the burial is over the mourners follow the procession route in reverse. A bonfire is built and the members of the procession leap through it and sprinkle themselves with water to cleanse themselves The soul tablet is taken back to the home and placed in the ceremonial room with the tablets of other family members.

In some parts of southern China, a body is buried for seven to ten years and then exhumed by a bone specialist, who reconstructs the skeletons, coloring the large bones with red dye (signifying blood) and wrapping the smaller bones in red paper. The skeleton is then bent into a fetal position and all the bones are placed in a large pot, which is reburied in a permanent tomb.

Profession mourners are no longer much in demand. One told the writer Laio Yiwu, “People are not what they used to be. They didn’t even pretend to be sorrowful.”

Chinese Tombs and Graves

20080222-metal cremation _urn
Metal cremation urn

Village tombs are often nothing more than mounds of earth. They are commonly arranged in neat rows, according to generation, with the tomb of the family’s common ancestor in the back. Often villagers don’t even know this ancestor’s name. They simply call him “Old Ancestor.”

Most graves are unmarked. Up until he Song dynasty, common people were not allowed to have markers on their graves. Only rulers and members of the bureaucratic class were allowed to erect shrines because only they were entitled to the political power endowed by heaven that such a shrine represented.

In ancient times tombs were often guarded by images of fierce warriors — regarded as powerful enough to crush oxen with their feet — and mythical animals, with the wings of birds, the ears of elephants, the faces of people, the bodies of lions and the legs of a horses and deer. Some of these figures were thought to represent Turbo, the Lord of the Underworld, who was summoned to get rid off demons.

By one estimate 70 percent of China's dead in rural areas are buried. In the Yunnan province some people are buried in beehive tombs. In Xingjiang many people are buried in neat Muslim-style tombs.

There are laws banning the placement of tombs on arable land and park land. Burial sites are so scare, that mounds have been placed next to railroad tracks. Deeds for burial places are common. The trading of tomb futures’speculating on the business of selling graves — bankrupted many investors and has been outlawed by the government. Some inventors were lured into scams in which they sunk considerable sums for nonexistent graves.

Extravagant Tombs in China

A large tomb and grave site have traditionally been seen as an indication of honor for the deceased and a means of earning respect for future generations. The custom was discouraged under Communists. In the 1990s and 2000s, large tombs once again became fashionable. These days rich Chinese are spending big money on posh mausoleums, in some cases spending more on their mausoleums than they have on their own homes. Tomb builders advertise deluxe models with thatched gazebos and staircases. Models shaped like couches, as was the custom in the Song Dynasty, are very popular.

For $12,000 today one can buy a tomb, covering 700 square feet, with stone lions and lighting. More elaborate ones are adorned with stone balustrades and have four levels built of white marble and cover 3,000 square feet. Some even have karaokes and board meeting rooms. A 10,000-square -foot plot with a semicircular tomb adorned with a pagoda, stone dragons and massive upended boulder cost around $125,000.

Chinese emperors often selected their own burial sites and began building their tombs with a mausoleum inside while they were still alive. The positioning of tombs was thought to have an impact on the entire dynasty and often disputes over exact position occurred long after an emperor had died. Even after death a hierarchy was maintained. In the Ming dynasty, princes were allowed a tomb that was 100 paces in circumference, 20 foot high, with a 10-foot wall surrounding it. It was accompanied by four human statues, and ten statues each of horses, tigers and sheep. Noblemen of the ninth rank were only allowed tombs 20 paces in circumference and less than six feet high, with no surrounding wall or statues.

Around Beijing the tombs of some of famous Ming officials have been watched over by guards for several hundred years. The tomb of Gen. Yian Chinghuan, defense minister of the last Ming Emperor, was watched over for 372 years by16 generations of one family until they were forced to move after the government decided to make the tomb into a tourist attraction.

In 2010 in southern Hunan Province, the authorities began investigating a private cemetery with 67 steps leading to a pagoda built by the family of a former government official after the news media likened it to an imperial tomb. In 2009, officials ordered the razing of a tomb in a village outside Chongqing in central China, after a local newspaper compared its size to that of a basketball court. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 22, 2011]

In the “artistic section” of The Pine Tree of Longevity, Chengdu’s largest cemetery, overlooking hills of flowering peace trees, Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times “are row after row of huge tombstones are decked out with rearing stone stallions, giant open books and granite tables and stools.” [Ibid]

Discouraging Fancy Tombs in China

The government is trying to crackdown on ostentatious tombs, many of which belong to corrupt officials. Some tombs have squatters living in them, who say they are better than their real homes. Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times that in Chengdu now “modest burial sites are in. Fancy tombs are out. And in some places, so are fancy funerals. Plots for ashes are limited to 1.5 square meters, about 4 feet by 4 feet. Tombstones are supposed to be no higher than 100 centimeters, or 39 inches, although it is not clear that limit will be enforced. Sellers of oversize plots have been warned of severe fines, as much as 300 times the plot’s price. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 22, 2011]

“Ordinary people who walk by and see these lavish tombs might not be able to keep their emotions in balance,” Zheng Wenzhong told the New York Times, as he visited the relatively modest resting place of a relative at The Temple of the Lighted Lamp cemetery. That is apparently exactly what many officials fear. After a quarter of a century in which the gap between rich and poor has steadily widened, the wretched excesses of the affluent are increasingly a Chinese government concern.

Mr. Li said that measures governing luxury advertisements or tombs might “to a certain extent alleviate the general hatred toward rich people” but were essentially stopgaps. Still, Chen Changwen, director of the sociology department at Sichuan University, said he saw their merit in averting social conflict.

A few month before the funeral in Wenling described above Wenling passed a regulation against funeral “extravagance and waste.” It limited the number of cars and wreaths and prohibited processions past schools and hospitals. The high school principal, the assistant principal and the government’s head of funeral practices were all fired, according to media reports, and the family was fined about $450.

Procession with a traveling god

Resentment over Fancy Tombs in China

Chen Changwen, director of the sociology department at Sichuan University, told tthe New York Times: “Of course, if we cannot change the fact of the disparity between the rich and poor, the least we can do is lessen the impact of it on society and lessen the advertising of it...A lot of people cannot handle the extravagant ways of this first generation of the wealthy. It really grates on the public.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 22, 2011]

Ostentatious tombs are particularly irksome, he said, because many Chinese find even a simple grave marker beyond their means. In a coinage that captures the widespread frustration, someone struggling to afford burial costs is called a “grave slave.” “There are many examples of how the rich can afford to bury the dead, but not the common people,” said Zheng Fengtian, a professor of rural development at Beijing’s Renmin University. “This makes many people very angry.”

Most Chengdu mourners interviewed by the New York Times expressed skepticism about the tomb limits. At Temple of the Lighted Lamp cemetery, Kuang Lan, 42, said: “My personal opinion is if you have the money to make a bigger tomb, make a bigger one. If not, make a smaller one.”

But Yang Bin, 48, who earns roughly $150 a month chiseling tombstones at Zhenwu Shan cemetery, quietly criticized the excesses of “capitalists” who “are everywhere now.” “This is how the Chinese are,” he told the New York Times after trudging down the cemetery’s steep hill in his thin cloth shoes. “If they have money, they want to show off their face. If you don’t have money, you have to work.”

Feng shui and Graves

According to the principals of feng shui a good grave site should be protected from evil winds and exposed to good winds, have a good view, be near water and be in harmony with its surrounding. An ideal place is on a slope with a view of water on a mountain shaped like a dragon, tiger or horse (all symbols of good luck). Tombs in graveyard sometimes face in different directions as the needs of individuals are different.

Luopan (feng shui compass)

A feng shui master using a compass and an edition of the "I Ching" to determine the proper place for a grave told National Geographic: "The prevailing winds and the location of running water are of primary importance for proper burials. So are the presence of nearby hills, the contour of the land and its direction. Important because the price of an improper burial site is very high — nothing less than misfortune visited upon sons and their sons. A proper burial keeps the spirit at rest, and beneficent influences eminate from it like rays from the sun."*

The selection of a grave site also depends on the person's Chinese astrological sign. A person who is born in the year of the ox, for example, is most in harmony with the monkey and the rooster. A good burial site is one that has landmarks nearby that look like these animals. Asians can spot these landmarks easily but Westerners usually have a harder time making them out.

Feng shui masters are often present at funerals. They are regarded by some as so important they take on the role of a religious figure in the funerary rites. But sometimes, relatives complain, the master say that things aren’t right at key moments as a way of getting some extra money.

Burial Versus Cremation in China

Before the Communist era, cremation was only practiced to a large degree in the cities, where the Chinese government encouraged people to cremate their deceased loved ones instead of burying them to save valuable land. Under the Communist government rules were passed that said if ashes stored in facilities adjacent to cemeteries and crematoriums were not retrieved by relatives within five years they would be thrown out.

By the 1970s, cremation was nearly universal in the large cities but practiced in only 13 percent of the cases in small cities, towns and villages. In 1985 a law was passed that required cremations in all densely populated areas. Failure to comply would result in a loss of burial subsidies and other penalties meted out through an individual’s work unit.

About 3.3 million hectares of the China's 80 million hectares of arable land is occupied by ancestral graves. In 1990s, every year an estimated 185,000 acres of land was consumed by burial plots and three million cubic meters of wood, the total annual production of Fujian province, was used for coffins.

Cremation is not necessarily a solution the land shortage problem. Some people build elaborate tombs to house the urn with the ashes.

"It's a basic problem that people in the countryside hold onto their old beliefs," a cemetery owner told AFP, "even if it means they don't have enough land for crops." In urban area, cemeteries are rare because they are considered a waste of space and most people can't afford a funeral, burial and tomb for their loved ones anyway.

20080222-funeral fire is tarted in stiove art crematoria wood.jpg
Fire started at crematoria

Cremation in China

The ashes of the dead are often put on the family shelf along with a vase of plastic flowers, a photograph of the deceased on an outing and maybe some gadget or picture of a kitten.

Cremations are much more impersonal than traditional funerals and burials. "People send their dead bodies to the [cremation] works," one Chinese man told the writer Paul Theroux. "The men put gasoline on the body. They burn it. They get ashes. They put the ashes in a small box. The people take it home and put it in a desk...A few people take the ashes to the mountains — to a Buddhist temple. But we take it home. I have my mother's sister in a box." Many mourners place fire-resistant objects with the body before the cremation to make sure they get back the ashes from the right body

Describing the scene at a crematorium in Beijing, Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In a series of glass-walled rooms, the bodies changed even if the plastic flowers, paper displays and related decorations remained. Ceremonies lasted no more than 30 minutes and there were often a line of body-laden gurnies, waiting their turn.” The basic fee is $50. For an extra $27 you can get “deluxe service” and watch the body be consumed by flames In Beijing you can pay extra to be buried in a small plot near a Qing emperor.

On the way to the crematorium with his deceased grandmother Ron Lin wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "My father carried a paper lantern, and older brother carried her spirit tablet “a placard bearing my grandmother;’s name...An uncle held an umbrella over the table, a funeral tradition dating back to the Japanese occupation. The umbrella covered the deceased’s view of the sky, which was said to be under the rule of the Japanese emperor.” [Source: Ron Lin, Los Angeles Times]

We arrived are the [crematoria] and walked downstairs to a large, white room. A machine slid the coffin into a steel tube, and orange-yellow flames quickly engulfed it...”Leave Ah-Me! “we shouted, urging Ah-Ma’s spirit to leave her body while the coffin burned....Several hours later we returned to receive her ashes. Using tongs, family members took turns placing her bones into the urn. “Ah-Ma, this is your new home,” we said.”

“We took the urn to the columbarium, which houses the ashes of the deceased, and placed it on a shelf. Then it was time for us to leave. One by one, we lined up to say a few words to Ah-Ma.:...When my turn came, I stared into the urn m head bowed, palms clasped and prayed.” Columbarium are places where relatives can keep ashes in an urn in a 30 cm (one foot) crevice in a wall.

Mao encouraged people to get cremated. Zhou En lai and Deng Xiaoping were cremated but Mao was placed in a 300,000 square tomb in Tiananmen Square. After Deng's death, scattering the ashes over bodies of water became popular for a while. But efforts to get people to scatter the ashes of loved ones at sea or on a beautiful spot have had limited results. Tending the grave of one's parents is a cornerstone of Chinese religious beliefs and family traditions. To do this without a grave is problematic.

In November 2010, during a nationwide shortage of diesel, the Longxing Funeral parlor in Chongqing stopped cremations, Around 10 bodies had to be “put back in the freezer” until enough supplies of diesel could secured.

burial feast in the 1910s

Working in Chinese Crematorium

Xing Yi wrote in the China Daily, “It was a job that required facing death every day. A job that felt creepy at times. A job that paid little. But former crematory operator Li Nansheng tried to make the most of it, and he explores the meaning of death and life in his fiction My Five Years of Working in the Crematorium. Li, 36, seemed to be destined for the job. Both of his parents were specialized musicians who performed at traditional funerals; they not only sang funeral songs and incantations, but also performed religious rituals. His wife is a mortuary makeup artist. Li himself was born during a funeral session. [Source: Xing Yi, China Daily, August 13, 2014 *]

"When I was born, my ears were filled with music," Li says. "The first sound I heard was a dirge." His first name "Nansheng", given by Li's father, literally means "birth during the incantations". When Li decided to take the job at a crematorium in 2004, his parents readily agreed. It is no easy job, as it requires being physically and mentally strong. "To learn how to operate the crematory is one thing," he says. "But to overcome fear is another thing." *\

“Every day, Li had to deal with corpses, and sometimes he would have to fetch a corpse as late as midnight. In his book, Li recounts many stories that were inspired by mysterious cases he encountered in his work. Some of them have scientific explanations while the reason for other "strange" happenings remains a mystery. Occasionally, Li felt prejudice and discrimination. Many Chinese people think that working in this area brings "bad luck", which makes it difficult for people like Li to find love. Most of the practitioners usually marry their colleagues, and so did Li. His wife used to work in the mortuary makeup department at the same crematorium. "The marriages among people in this trade are mostly blessed," he says. "We have seen too many departures between life and death, and learned to cherish each other." *\

“Li started posting his fictional stories on an online forum in 2011, and soon received enthusiastic responses - millions of clicks and thousands of replies. "At first, I wrote my stories about the crematory house just to kill time," Li recalls. "Then many readers asked me to write more, so the short stories ended up as a novel." Li has now quit the job and become a businessman; writing is his part-time hobby. His first book was done without a plan in advance, and Li doesn't have the next one fixed in his mind. "Maybe the next book will also come up in a way I never expected," he says. His book was published in Chinese in 2012 and sold more than 10,000 copies. Sharing thoughts on life and experiences with the dead, Li's novel has thrilled some readers while touching their hearts. One reader told Li that he once had thoughts of committing suicide but changed his mind after reading Li's posts online. "He said he realized the value of life, joking that he didn't want to see me that early," Li adds. *\

Land for Graves in Short Supply in China

William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “To cut down on space, cremation already is required by law in cities, but land shortages have increasingly sparked risky investments for even the small graves in which those ashes are usually interred. The cheapest spots in some of Beijing’s more desirable cemeteries sell for more than $16,000, and Chinese media reports have cited luxury tombs sold for as much as $129,000. With virtually unlimited demand, many come with hefty maintenance fees after an initial 20-year lease and guarantee eviction if they go unpaid. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, April 3, 2013 +++]

“And the problem will only get worse as China’s elderly population increases. In 2011, 9.6 million people died in China. A government report issued last week predicts the number will reach 20 million annually by 2025. Most provinces will run out of burial room in the next 10 years, according to the study by the Ministry of Civil Affairs. A few provinces — such as Shanxi, Shandong and Guangdong — have fewer than five years. Beijing’s leaders recently told state media that they are planning to shrink grave sizes this year — from the current limit of one square meter per person — to stretch their reserves. +++

“After the communists took control in 1949, millions of graves were plowed over in the following years and remade into farmland. Funerals were considered superstitious vestiges of feudalism, coffins wasted wood and graves wasted farmland. Cremation — long shunned — was promoted as practical, even patriotic. Even Communist Party leader Mao Zedong had declared his wish to be cremated (in vain it turns out, as successors embalmed his body for permanent display in Tiananmen Square).” +++

burial in 1898

World’s Largest Crematory and Burial Site Shortage

The world’s largest crematory, the Yishin Crematory, is located in Shanghai. The facility has 24 incinerators that help dispose of most of the roughly 100,000 people that die in Shanghai each year. Members of the “burn teams” that do the dirty work have ash all over their clothes, in their hair and in their fingernails. The workers say that busiest time of the year is before Lunar Year because more people die in the winter than other times of year and families want to make sure all funeral rites are completed before the holiday begins.

Yishin is located on the outskirts of town so the acrid smoke that is produced bothers a minimum of people. To save wood, the dead are placed in red velveteen-covered bamboo caskets. Bodies are kept frozen before they are cremated and if necessary embalmed with a special process that prevents blood from being disposed of in the sewer system. After the cremation mourners are herded into an area that resembles a bus station and dine on a ritual “tofu meal” while hawkers try to sell them hell money and other funerary items.

Short on Graves, China Turns to Sea Burials

William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “Prices for graves are skyrocketing, driven by decades of unbridled development and scarce city land. The government’s answer to this conundrum: sea burials. Officials across China are selling hard the option of a watery grave by offering hefty financial incentives and planting stories in state media — with only marginal success. Many local governments, however, have saved their strongest pitches for this week, timing them to the Qingming Festival, when families nationwide take a day off to sweep their ancestors’ graves. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, April 3, 2013 +++]

“In the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, officials recently announced a $160 bonus for families that scatter ashes at sea. In Shanghai, officials upped their offer in the past year from $65 to a more persuasive $320. Topping them all, however, are the coastal cities of Shaoxing and Wenzhou, which are offering $800 and $1,290, respectively, for sea burials. To sweeten the deal, the government often provides transportation, including all-expense-paid boat trips. The official eagerness is fueled by bureaucratic fears of chaos and anger once the country runs out of graves — a certainty in coming years, according to recent studies. +++

“Amid these dire straits, local officials began floating the sea burial idea in the past few years. The government-funded version of it — offered by most bigger cities — can resemble a half-day cruise. On the morning of the burials, dozens of families take a shuttle bus en masse to a dock, ashes in tow. Out at sea, an organizer holds a service, then leads relatives in mixing the remains with flowers. At an appointed spot, the ashes are cast overboard. +++

“Critics worry that tradition and the meaning of ancestor-honoring rites are being tossed out amid the government initiatives. “Han Chinese have been burying their dead for thousands of years,” noted Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at Renmin University in Beijing. “It’s not wrong to subsidize sea burials. . . but saving land shouldn’t be the deciding factor for how someone chooses to be buried. China’s land belongs to all Chinese. Why shouldn’t they get one square meter to lay down in when they die?” +++

“Although laws have made cremation almost universal in cities, the government’s sea burial initiatives have not had the same success. Since Guangzhou announced its $160 subsidy this year, fewer than 20 people have registered. In Shanghai — one of the earliest to employ sea burials, in the 1990s — the practice has barely made a dent. In 2010, sea burials numbered in the low thousands while grave burials totaled 53,311. Speaking to local media this week, Lu Chunling, the chief of Shanghai’s mortuary service division, tried to strike an optimistic tone. There’s a chance, he said, that if the city is careful with its remaining grave space, it will run out in 15 years rather than in 10.” +++

Funeral train in the 1910s

New and Environmentally-Friendly Funeral Technologies

In Hong Kong where space is tight, the government has also urged residents to think of alternatives, such as scattering ashes in memorial gardens or at sea. But these are unpopular with Chinese mourners, who want a permanent resting place to visit and honor their dead. [Source: Stefanie McIntyre, Reuters Life! May 20, 2011]

Enter SIMTECH, a German electronics company that produces touch-screens and has teamed up with the manager of two memorial gardens in Shanghai to provide memorial databases for people whose ashes were scattered at sea. Visitors can type in the name of a person on a screen and then call up pictures, a curriculum vitae, or whatever the person wanted. SIMTECH says that once installed, the screens require no maintenance and have been tested to withstand temperatures from -40C to 80C. "I think it's also very interesting for the cemeteries that they can offer their customers something new," said SIMTECH business manager Stephan Simanowski.

Since the Shanghai memorial garden introduced the technology two years ago, ashes being scattered at sea have increased by 100 percent, he added. The technology is also available for land-based burials. One noted Chinese director, Xie Jin, has a screen on his tombstone playing his biography and films.

The Asia Funeral Expo, held Hong Kong in May 2011, showed that, like many other industries, the funeral business is also trying to go "green." Biodegradable urns, paper coffins and emissions-reducing crematoria were all presented.

Custom-decorated, recycled cardboard coffins made by an Australian firm, LifeArt, can carry 250 kg but weigh only 10 kg, their lightness helping to fight global warming. "You'll probably have an 80 percent difference in emissions and burn time," said Natalie Verdon, LifeArt business manager. "That's been a very big thing for all the crematoriums, to watch the emissions."

For those who don't want to be parted from the departed, the South Korean firm "Immortal Jade" offers to turn ashes into the precious stone in under an hour — for a mere U.S. $1,500. "We process for (around)40 minutes," said manager Marie Park Youngeun. "It's just made from the pure ashes, but we can also add some colors if you want a certain color. And it varies in color and size because you have different elements in the body," she added.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Funeral procession 1920s, Bucklin archives

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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