For Chinese, no escape from government control even when six feet under

Even when six feet under, Chinese just cannot escape the long arm of the state.

Elaborate private funeral rites, which can last days with chanting monks, dancing strippers, and wailing mourners, are now banned in parts of Wenzhou, a southeastern coastal city of nine million.

Starting this week, wakes must be state-sanctioned. Families can choose from luxury, mid-range or discount government funeral packages. Even the number of floral wreaths in each mourning hall are now capped at five, and a new 24-hour funeral consulting service has launched for help on all things death-related, such as body transport and storage.

The Chinese government has long waged war on extravagant funerals, but it is tough in a place that takes the dead and dying very seriously – improper burial rites are thought to bring bad luck to the living.

Tradition dictates tomb placement, and ceremonies last days with families burning paper replicas of food, money, and even iPads, to ensure loved ones a comfortable afterlife. 

In a culture where social dignity is highly valued, nobody wants to be perceived as cutting corners especially when it comes to paying your respects.

Some families even pay professional mourners to express grief – the louder the cries, the stronger the demonstration of filial piety. Others choose to hire strippers, a practice authorities have as well tried to curb.

Funerals are not going away in China, given an aging population and about 10 million deaths last year, according to official statistics.

Still, Beijing has cracked down, urging government officials in 2014 to set the example with “simple and civilised funerals,” according to state media, rather than using them “to show off wealth and connections".

Wenzhou has been a petri dish for the Communist Party’s strategic reforms to such traditional beliefs – two years ago, the city was chosen as a pilot to experiment with such changes. Local authorities say the new funeral regulations are meant to help control rising costs to families for what have become excessively expensive and showy rites.

He Bing, a law professor in China, told state media, however, that there is no legal basis for the Wenzhou authorities to enforce and implement these rules.

“Setting up a mourning stand and offering condolences at home is a private matter, and an individual right,” Mr He Bing, a law professor in China told state media. “Funeral rites are an important part of our country’s culture, and forcing the use of [government] funeral parlours violate our culture and the law.”

Under pressure over smog, the government has pushed for eco-friendly burials, requiring crematoriums to upgrade incinerators to control smoke pollution. In Jiangsu province, authorities have even asked families to pay an advance deposit returned after a body is cremated.

Earlier this year, a new “zero burial” policy was introduced in Jiangxi province, where people regularly splash life savings on expensive coffins for themselves in efforts to cut down on land used for burials. To encourage greater adoption of the change, officials smashed thousands of coffins.

“Mourning halls are part of traditional customs, it’s not okay to chance customs on a whim,” He said.

Additional reporting by Paula Jin

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