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Chinese face rising cost of dying

April 28, 2009 11:48 IST

When Lin Yuanjing's husband died of liver cancer in February she was prepared with the wads of cash she knew would be needed to navigate the bureaucracy of death.

The first people she paid were the hospital nurses and orderlies so they would clean her husband's body and treat it with respect when they moved it to a freezer cupboard in the morgue. Then she paid an orderly to help her register the death with the public security bureau and Shanghai government and contact the state-owned funeral parlour.

At the parlour, the grieving widow was confronted by a baffling menu of goods and services intended to smooth her husband's departure - from jade urns costing Rmb40,000 ($6,000, Pound 4,000, Euro 4,500) to paper money to be burnt for her husband's use in the afterlife.

With a couple of devastating comments about piety clearly intended to shame Ms Lin into coughing up more for her husband's cremation, the funeral parlour official ran through the long list of options - would she like her husband to be transported in a minivan or a Mercedes-Benz hearse? Would she like him to wait in a VIP room before cremation? Wouldn't that jade urn make the perfect final resting place?

While basic prices for transporting, storing and cremating bodies in China are supposed to be set and regulated by the state, "extras" including coffins, urns, wreaths, funeral processions and graves are all set by "the market".

The funeral industry around the world has long stood accused of exploiting vulnerable customers, but in China the price shock that confronts grieving relatives has an added dimension. In practice, the business of bereavement is monopolised by the Chinese government and state companies owned by local divisions of the ministry of civil affairs, which oversees the industry, and prices are inflated to extortionate levels to provide huge profits.

Public outrage erupted this month in China over profiteering in the funeral industry, and the outcry even spilled into the state-controlled press on the traditional tomb-sweeping festival, when Chinese honour the dead.

According to official state media reports, China's funeral sector would be a business worth Rmb16bn a year, based on an average of 8m deaths a year. But if sales of graves are counted the industry is worth more than Rmb200bn a year.

The mark-up on "extras" such as shrouds, funerary clothes, wooden coffins, wreaths and urns can be up to 1,000 per cent, while graveyard space - even for the tiny cremation plots usually required by the government - can be up to 1,000 times more expensive per square metre than the average Chinese apartment.

"When one is alive he can't afford to buy a house to live in and when he is dead he can't afford a tiny box to rest in," says one outraged Chinese person in an internet posting.

According to the China Funeral Association 80 per cent of funeral homes in China and 50 per cent of graveyards are state-owned.

But because civil affairs authorities are majority owners and chief regulators of the business, operators of private graveyards are often closely related to civil affairs officials, and corruption is rife.

"It's like someone is both the athlete and the referee," says Zhang Mingliang, director of the social affairs department at the ministry of civil affairs, in an interview with the People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist party. "The local funeral management departments are right there in the funeral homes, sharing staff with and getting salary from those funeral homes. How are they supposed to conduct efficient supervision?"

Before he died Ms Lin's husband insisted that his wife save money and bury his ashes at sea in a modest service subsidised by the government.

On a rainy day recently she gathered at dawn with hundreds of other grieving families on a dock on the outskirts of Shanghai.

While a brass band played a repetitive dirge the throng of strangers carrying paper bags of remains pushed and shoved their way onto the boat, jostling for prime position so they could be first to dump their loved one's remains into the East China Sea.

By avoiding a fancy funeral and most of the trappings, Ms Lin managed to keep total costs down to just Rmb7,000, an amount partly covered by a newly introduced Rmb5,000 government subsidy.

In a country where the deceased are supposed to be respected just as much as the living, it is getting harder for most to afford the luxury of dying.

Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 2009

Jamil Anderlini in Shanghai, FT.com
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