Death comes as a surprise to most. We have no idea when or how it’ll strike, and we have no time to prepare ourselves. For one elderly woman in Anhui province, however, the timing had to be precise: she had a deadline.
Once the clock strikes twelve on the night of May 31st, burials are henceforth forbidden in the city of Anqing. After that, teams will be dispatched from house to house, destroying the wooden coffins that old people in Anhui often work on for up to a decade before their deaths. In order to beat the clock and receive a proper burial, 81-year-old Zhang Wenying hanged herself in front of her family home.
Zhang was not alone in either her concern nor her determination. Her neighbour Wu Xiuli, who starved himself to death earlier this month, and four others have perished alongside her. One threw herself down a well, and another killed herself after authorities sawed her coffin in half before her eyes. Reports of Anqing’s senior suicides incited public outrage through China, and as such were promptly deleted by the authorities. Relevant organs claim that the ban is intended to save land, but in a country where local governments rely so heavily on land transfers for their revenue, it’s not hard to see why people are cynical about just who they want to save this land for. “As the value of land goes up,” one netizen observed, “the value of human lives goes down.”
In China, the idea of “entering the earth and being at peace” (rutu wei’an) has thousands of years of tradition behind it, as a permanent burial spot was necessary for subsequent generations to venerate their ancestors. Yet ironically it is in Hong Kong, where cremation became the norm long ago, that traditional ancestral veneration has, perhaps, survived most intact. There, burials in government-run cemeteries are disinterred after six years, at which point the remains are either collected privately for cremation or reburied in an urn or niche. This is in keeping with the traditional southern Chinese practice of jian’gu or “digging up bones,” according to which you were duty-bound by filial piety to open your parents’ tombs some years after they had died and meticulously clean the bones, then place them in a much smaller ceramic pot for reburial.
In typical Hong Kong fashion, however, the shift from burials to cremation was decided by market forces rather than official fiat. Burials were never banned in Hong Kong, and you can still be buried in a privately run cemetery today – if you can afford it. Just like apartments and retail space, squarefootage for grave plots is prohibitively expensive. Over the years, as the population swelled and land prices soared, people simply got used to the new reality and adapted their traditions accordingly.
Perhaps these heavy-handed Anhui bureaucrats could learn a thing or two from the Hong Kong model of funeral and internment reform.
[Pic via thegrio.com]
By Ryan Kilpatrick