Last week we wrote about multi-storey pig farms – a new type of hoggery intended to save space in a country that has a fifth of the world’s population on only a tenth of its land.
This week there’s another land- saving idea – albeit one that the government doesn’t approve of in quite the same way: multi-storey graveyards.
Earlier this month it emerged that a village near Tianjin had turned its local graveyard into what looked like a cluster of five-storey apartment blocks. The only clues to the real use was that the apartments had blacked-out windows and that there was little human activity around the complex.
In fact all 3,000 apartments had been sold as columbariums – places that store human remains.
Local officials in Wanjiaquan village maintain they did nothing wrong: land that is designated as a graveyard is being used as such.
The Tianjin authorities see it differently, however. They say the village has violated land-use agreements by constructing buildings on the site and selling ‘tombs’ to people outside the Wanjiaquan area.
The village has now been ordered to suspend sales while an investigation is carried out into the possible misuse of public land.
The popularity of the idea – almost all the units were sold – speaks to the shortage of cemetery space in China and the high prices that better burial plots can command.
The government banned the burial of bodies in 1997, forcing all but a few of the country’s ethnic minorities to cremate their dead. The move was followed by a major exhumation programme in which some 10 million graves were relocated or downsized in order to free up valuable land.
Today most local governments limit the size of cemetery plots (these now exclusively house ashes in urns) to a single square metre per couple, typically assigning them on 20-year contracts.
One of the advantages of buying an ‘apartment’ to house a loved one’s ashes is that the property in question comes with longer leases, allowing families to respect the traditional practice of storing the remains of different generations together.
A video of the development in Wanjiaquan shows 15 ‘residential’ blocks set in green parkland. Inside the door of each unit is a funereal plaque and traditional grave dressings.
Only a few apartments on the upper floors remain unsold, according to Caijing. The most popular – and most expensive – are the units on the ground floor – or “nearer the earth”, according to a local interviewee.
Apartments in the complex are selling for Rmb6,000 ($886) a square metre, while a good plot in a commercial cemetery in Tianjin would sell for about 10 times that amount for the same size.
The Redstar News came out in defence of Wanjiaquan village, saying that it had come up with a creative way to meet a deep human need.
“The funeral industry needs to reform. ‘Residential cemeteries’ make up for the shortage of resources. They are an idea worth considering,” it wrote.
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