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China: scattering at sea – Shanghai offers a subsidised service.

Here we have an article on scattering ashes off the coast in Shanghai, China. I have blogged about the service that the Hong Kong authorities offer which is an attempt to alleviate the land use from traditional burials, I am a fan of green burials it has to be said, but it rare that this issue is properly discussed and here we see that land use is considered a serious issue.  The argument I tend to hear is ‘what is not to like about a few more acres of woodland’ true can’t argue with that. But how much more woodland? In china where all numbers are big the size is difficult to comprehend.


Before I carry on in this vein about scale and numbers there are few other parts of the article that interest me

  • The traditions
  • Memorialisation
  • The protest
  • The flowers

So if you think the scale thing is a bit dull have a look at the traditions, fascinating.

Anyway back to the big figures… Shanghai’s 202nd burial at sea took place earlier this month (June 2012), they were the first city in China to offer burials at sea starting in 1991.

This year 10,000 residents have already applied to scatter the ashes of some 2,000 relatives at sea. They have already reached capacity meaning that funerals will have to be delayed until next year. The service has been steadily increasing in demand every year.

The Shanghai authorities have been encouraging burials at sea and the number of people wanting burials at sea has been increasing, but resources can’t keep up and the service has hit a bottleneck. A shortage of boats, financial difficulties and conflicts with mourners have combined to put pressure on this service.

But why have the authorities push for the method of funeral? Because the pressure on land use.  Every year there are an average 110,000 deaths in the city. Going by their figure a grave takes up 1.5 square meters of land and the graves for one year’s deaths could take up 165,000 square meters or to put in spatial context 16 hectares or 44 acres or x football pitches. Now that is a serious amount of space. Admittedly not in comparison to the space of China, but cemeteries need to be proximity to populations and it is that which leads to problems.

“Shanghai is short of graveyards while burials at sea save the land for the descendants,” Lü said. “Personally I think a burial at sea is the most advanced, land-conserving and environmentally friendly funeral method.”

However last year sea burials which accounted for just 1.2% (2,259) of all funerals. They are increasing by around 8% per year, most families rejected the idea due to tradition and it is only more liberal families adopting it. Their target is 2% of all funerals.

However, even now demand is outstripping supply and even with an increase municipal subsidy the boat company believes it is losing money (not really going to encourage supply then!). So one has to wonder about the future – in the hands of private suppliers?

Right lets talk about barriers due to tradition, which is really interesting and to get it right I have copied this section word for word…

Liu Yuanchuan, an academic with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said burials at sea could involve tradition and beliefs and could be delicate issues. He said that traditional values dominated opinions about burials at sea. “This is the basic reason why there are so few burials at sea,” he said.

He said that under Confucian traditions a body was given by the parents and should be buried in the earth to preserve its integrity. “There is an old Chinese proverb that burying the body brings peace to the deceased and burying the body in earth is a way of showing respect and filial duty to the parents.”

Liu said that some Chinese followed Taoist precepts which believe that the soul of the deceased cannot find a body to reincarnate itself in the next life if the body is not buried in the ground. “This is especially common in the countryside.”

Liu said that according to Buddhist teachings, burial at sea could be a charitable act. “Scattering the ashes of the dead into the sea could feed marine life and would be regarded as an act of kindness, but the idea has not been widely accepted yet.”

Liu said that to promote burials at sea attitudes will have to be changed. “If we only promote this as a way of saving land, it will have little effect. If we could make it worthwhile to be buried at sea it would be better.” Liu said that people should not be afraid of death but respect it. “Death is not an end but another form of life.”

I wonder what he means by worthwhile? Financially? Spiritually? I don’t suppose we can sneak into the forbidden city and start tipexing out Confucius’ sacred text and putting in there something about scattering at sea (sorry I am being facetious)

Next, the bit about memorialisation again chunks will be direct lifts (marked in italics)

Apparently there is a memorial hall in Binhai Park in Fengxian district for people buried at sea in China. And the Shanghai Sea Burial Memorial Hall has the names of 20,000 (about 1% of the total) of the deceased who have been buried this way inscribed on stone monuments. The hall also boasts screens where mourners can call up photographs and biographies of their loved ones. It was created as people had no physical place to mourn after the ashes were scattered.

Zhao Xiaohu, the manager of the park, told the Global Times: “In the past, families had nowhere specific to mourn after the ashes were scattered. The memorial hall was built in 2004 and is a good way to remember the departed and connect with them.”

This makes sense from my limited understanding of Chinese culture, in that they culturally are inclined to more ancestor worship (as opposed to deity) so have a place to memorialise is important – happy to be corrected on this point.

He concludes with the following, which is again interesting that the land use for the memorialisation is starting to be significant! And he is suggesting a more high tech solution…

“We are thinking of providing more virtual monuments to replace the stone monuments to save land,” Zhao said. “As more people choose burials at sea, there will be a need for more memorials which will take up more space on the land.”

The Protest – the reason why this story got into the press was because of a protestor, no as you may think some sort fanatical marine conservationist convinced that the ashes were disturbing precious ecosystems. No, apparently the boat service was delay through fog and generally unfavourable conditions meaning the scattering was to take place at noon – this was considered inauspicious and in protestor leapt from the Wusong Dock as the funeral vessel moved out to sea. He was hauled back onto dry land by police. Apparently this was not an isolated instance. “Going to sea requires good weather. If there is fog or high winds or storms it is not safe,” the spokesman said. “Sometimes burials at sea have to be postponed because of the weather and if the mourners don’t understand this they can cause problems.

Two last points: in the photo they are scattering chrysanthemums into the sea – a lovely flower you have to admit (a bit underrated in the UK I always think), we tend to use roses, Hindu and Sikh an orange flower whose name I have yet to discover (if you know please tell me). Why is that then, why did they become the flower of choice? Obviously dictated by native environment by why those I wonder (sorry no answers)…

Lastly quick bit about cost

Subsidised ferry service – the government raised the subsidy for the company to 468 yuan (~£50 or $75). It also increased the subsidies it offered families who chose burials at sea from 400 yuan to 2,000 yuan.

Private boat service – there are private companies which charge about 20,000 yuan (~£2000 or $3000) for between four and seven mourners to bury someone at sea. Blimey you could get a Caribbean cruise for that!

Traditional land based grave in Shanghai costs 55,000 yuan. (~ £5500 or $8000) which is staggering if you consider average income… um… I wonder what most people do then sure the average family can’t afford that?


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