China Offers Freebies to Promote Burials at Sea

Lin Hui Zhen weeps as she places the ashes of her late husband in a metal chute during a sea burial organized by the Funeral and Internment Administration of Shanghai Photograph by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Saturday brings the Qingming Festival, a traditional tomb-sweeping holiday when Chinese visit the graves of departed relatives. In honor of the festival, the China Daily reports on what some officials clearly hope will become the latest trend in Chinese funerals: burials at sea.

According to the country’s official English-language newspaper, local governments are encouraging people to scatter ashes of loved ones in the waters off China’s coast. “In cities such as Beijing and Shanghai,” the report notes, “governments are now offering free sea burials or cash subsidies to families.”

This isn’t the first time the Chinese media has touted the wonders of forgoing land burials. Two years ago, for instance, China Daily reported on efforts by Shanghai’s city government to encourage burials at sea to save money and space in the crowded metropolis. “Those opting for burial at seat will save 1 square meter of land in Shanghai, and that would cost about 24,000 yuan [almost $4,000] if it was a burial plot,” the city’s director of funeral management, Lu Chunling, told the newspaper at the time.

Still, it hasn’t quite caught on. Beijing has been promoting burials at sea for 20 years, but in 2013 only 1,200 families chose the option. Wang Dedong, the director of the Beijing Funeral Service Center, is nonetheless optimistic there will be more takers, telling the China Daily that the number of sea burials from the city is expected to double this year.

Sea burials might become popular among China’s politically correct crowd. The country’s population is aging quickly, and cemetery space is tight. Moreover, President Xi Jinping has been leading a high-profile campaign against many forms of conspicuous consumption since taking the helm of the Communist Party of China in 2012. In addition to cracking down on lavish banquets, expensive jewelry, and other signs of extravagance, Xi’s campaign has targeted pricey send-offs for the dead amid criticism of the traditional funeral industry “for its excessive pricing of funeral products and confused industry standards.”

As my colleague Christina Larson reported in December, the State Council has distributed guidelines for “funeral and internment reform” calling on party members and government officials to “set an example of simple, civilized funerals.”

Sea burial is certainly simple. Perhaps with that in mind, the Beijing city government may commission a ship to carry as many as 500 people, the China Daily reports. During peak funeral seasons in the spring and fall, moreover, the ship would be able to meet rising demand by offering “more ash scattering tours.”

Non-Chinese interested in the latest trend shouldn’t get their hopes up, though. The Beijing Funeral Service Center, the only company in the city authorized for burials at sea, offers sweeteners to local residents, waiving all service fees. Chinese who aren’t residents of Beijing have to pay an additional 380 yuan ($61), the China Daily reports, but the company turns away people from other countries. “The service is not available for foreigners yet,” the center’s director told the newspaper.

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