In recent months, the harsh methods being taken to curb burials in eastern China have kicked up controversy on Chinese social media.
Netizens’ ire was provoked by shocking images of coffins being seized from villagers’ homes and smashed with excavators. In one case, a recently buried coffin was exhumed, and the body inside was taken to be cremated. These methods — among others adopted by the local officials tasked with carrying out the campaign — proved so extreme and controversial that the Communist Party-run Guangming Daily published a commentary criticizing the campaign for “going against the will of the people.”
Chinese history stretches back thousands of years, and during that time burial rituals have rarely stayed static. But in ancient times, the government was relatively respectful of the ways new traditions would arise spontaneously from folk practices. As long as the new custom did not deviate too far from mainstream Confucian values, the authorities generally did not intervene.
That attitude changed during the Republican era — which stretched from the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912 to the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. Looking to build a modern, civilized nation, the country’s new leaders set their sights on a variety of traditional rituals — including funerals — which they saw as outdated and overly complex. The new laws were primarily applied to civil servants, however, and traditional funeral practices at the grassroots level of society were left largely untouched — especially in the countryside.
Attempts at funeral reform continued after the founding of the PRC. Still, enforcement remained relatively lax until the mid-1960s, though cremations were strongly encouraged for national leaders and government workers. During the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), however, traditional funerals were listed among the “Four Olds” — feudal practices in need of elimination — and all individuals had to be cremated after death, though the country’s ethnic minorities were given more leeway.
I have my own memories of this time. My great-aunt passed away not long after the Cultural Revolution, and our family buried her in secret, under the cover of darkness. The village cadres — who were descended from our same clan — looked the other way. Others were not so lucky. After government oversight grew stricter, many coffins that had been buried in secret were dug up by the people’s militia and carried away to be burned. Even long-buried coffins were exhumed as the country sought to conserve farmland by pulling down tombs.
The legal basis for the more recent wave of funeral reform efforts can be found in regulations issued by the State Council — China’s cabinet — in 1997. The new rules called for funeral practices to be reformed, the amount of land set aside for burial plots to be reduced, and undesirable customs replaced with more “civilized” and economical ones.
These rules were further tweaked in 2012, when the provision allowing the use of force to carry out burial reform measures was withdrawn — a response to public outrage after a local government campaign razed or removed 3.5 million graves in the central province of Henan.
Yet provinces continue to try and push through funeral reforms: Anhui, Shandong, and Shanxi provinces have all seen such campaigns in the past few years. In response, I joined twenty other scholars in 2016 to publish an open letter in Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper. Together, we hoped to call attention to the need to protect traditional rural funeral customs, but even we were surprised at how deeply our message resonated with readers.
So why do local governments keep risking the public's wrath with their heavy-handed tactics? In 2017, the northeastern province of Shandong — where I am from — was one of the provinces selected by the central government as a pilot site for funeral reform. To better understand the context for the reforms there, this July I conducted field research in the city of Qufu — the hometown of Confucius — and other nearby towns.
My first takeaway was that China’s funeral reforms show little concern for basic human values, and are instead driven by utilitarian considerations. When arguing for the necessity of reform, officials most often cite two key reasons: lowering the cost of funerals and eliminating undesirable customs.
The first reason is controversial. It is unclear whether replacing coffin burials with cremations will really save farmland — especially in areas like Shandong, where cremations have already become the norm, and residents simply want to inter their ashes — and the amount of money a family is willing to spend to say goodbye to a loved one is a private matter, not something in which the government should forcibly intervene. Of course, there have been cases in China of people going deep into debt and even bankrupting themselves from putting on extravagant funerals — but this alone is not enough to justify forceful government interference.
The second reason — the need to eliminate undesirable funeral customs, such as the recent surge in striptease performances — isn’t any more clear-cut. The indiscriminate labeling of traditional funeral customs as “undesirable” is both arbitrary and distorted.
At the grassroots level, China’s traditional funeral culture stretches back for hundreds if not thousands of years, and the associated rituals are closely tied to questions of faith, religion, discipline, values, education, and heritage. In traditional Chinese culture, tombs are sacrosanct — their destruction is believed to doom the prospects of the family line — and for someone to find peace, they must be laid to rest in the ground. In a context where these views still hold sway, an attack on an elderly person’s coffin is an attack on the very meaning of his or her life.
Public resentment is also compounded by the fact that the motives behind burial reform campaigns are not always entirely pure.
In at least one case I know of in Shandong, a communal village cemetery that had given villagers an inexpensive place to bury their dead for hundreds of years was sold off by village cadres to a property developer, who promptly privatized it. Now locals — who over the past few decades had already given up their traditional burial customs in favor of cremation — must pay extravagant sums just to have their ashes interred. Those who can’t afford a plot, which can cost as much as five figures each, must either be buried on their own land or wherever they can find room —and then still risk their resting place being razed.
Unlike those conservatives who argue that funerals should be left completely alone, I believe there are some customs in need of modification. Many traditional rituals are indeed out of touch with contemporary needs.
Yet in pursuing reform, local governments tend to follow a campaign-style model unconstrained by a concern for laws, regulations, or public input. This is unsustainable. Funerary customs are linked to people’s feelings of security and to the maintenance of social order. If we are to reform them, we must first solicit input from all corners of society. Any reforms must be built on a solid foundation of research and careful consideration —and they must be carried out gradually. Matters of this magnitude cannot be left to the whims of leaders, local or otherwise.
China’s funeral reform campaign should account for basic human values. Humanity is defined by a reverence for life, and the right to dignity in death is an inseparable part of this. These are the values we must honor. Funerals are more than a way to dispose of a deceased person’s body, and authorities should treat the rituals that surround them with awe and respect, rather than risk losing the public's faith by adopting methods that run counter to popular values.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Coffins lie waiting to be disposed of in a field in Tongcheng, Anhui province, May 24, 2014. VCG)