Planet China

Open Casket

China is a place replete with traditions and to the outside observer some of them can seem a little odd. One of these made the news this week involving residents of Shangrao in Jiangxi province. The Global Times points out that senior citizens there have long held the view that keeping a coffin in their homes will either prevent bad things from happening or that the coffin will “give them hints” days before their death.

However, the local government in one of the city’s townships was keen to prove it was upholding some of Beijing’s newer ideas on burial. It held a meeting on ‘eco-friendly funeral reform’ last Sunday, in which it was made plain that the central government wanted to encourage cremation and discourage the traditional practice of burying the dead. The logic: China has a growing elderly population and a scarcity of land. By promoting cremation and discouraging graveyards, more land is freed up. Lavish funerals are also said to “waste resources”.

This message, however, was taken to a particularly zealous level by the local officials in Shangrao. First, during a meeting to promote “green burials” senior Party members voluntarily gave up their own coffins to show support for the reform. Then in a somewhat less voluntary fashion, villagers were told to surrender their coffins as well and watch as they were smashed up in a mass ceremony. The Global Times says around 1,000 coffins were chopped up.

The news caused a backlash online where the coffin-crushing ceremony carried disturbing echoes of the violent destruction witnessed during China’s Cultural Revolution, which began in the mid-Sixties. A professor at Renmin University told that “moderated methods” were needed to allow “rural residents to gradually accept the new ways”.

The Beijing News said compensation of up to Rmb1,000 ($158) would be offered for each coffin surrendered but that residents who keep their coffins may be fined. The Global Times admitted it was hard to fight certain traditions in China: “Many rural residents refuse to accept eco-friendly ways of conducting funerals.”

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