Despite being only 20 years old, Wu Yujiao knows of death, suffering, tragedy, and loss like few others her age. She has seen babies who died after being born with birth defects and young women the same age as her killed in car accidents, but she has also seen those lucky enough to peacefully pass away after a long, happy life.
In the three years she has been studying in the funeral service department of Changsha Social Work College, in the capital of central Hunan province, Wu said that she must have helped embalm and prepare more than 500 bodies for funerals.
Funeral services during which family members cry their eyes out are one of the hardest parts of her job. “It’s heartbreaking to see those scenes,” she said.
The funeral service students at Changsha Social Work College all agree that their career choice wasn’t an easy one, and that they will face social stigma and emotional stress throughout their working lives. The one thing they don’t need to worry about, however, is job security. While many university graduates struggle to find suitable positions, graduates of funeral service departments usually get multiple job offers.
A young mortician registers personal information of the deceased at a funeral home in Qingdao, Shandong province, April 1, 2015. A Mu/VCG
In 2014, a total of 10.4 million people died in China, a country whose funeral industry was estimated to be worth 93.5 billion yuan (then $15.4 billion) in a 2013 report by market research firm Euromonitor International.
It’s an increasingly profitable business for companies like Fu Shou Yuan, one of the nation’s largest premium cemetery providers, which priced its 2013 initial public offering at $215 million. “China has the largest number of deaths in the world, and thus has the largest potential consumer base for death care services,” the company said at the time.
As the population ages, demand for trained morticians grows. In 2010, state news agency Xinhua reported that more than 8,000 additional morticians were needed.
Wu and her classmates — young professionals with strong work ethics — are in high demand. In 1995, Changsha Social Work College became the first institution to start offering such professional training. Since then, only three more programs have opened across the country. Slowly, the graduates are altering the landscape of China’s funeral world, hoping to provide more considerate service to both the dead and the ones they leave behind alive.
As the industry is growing, it is also modernizing. Before, most morticians were retired soldiers or other members of society who chose to enter the profession due to a lack of alternatives. Funeral homes were not even required to be properly licensed until 2009.
Some of Wu’s classmates said that during their internships, they saw their older colleagues handle the dead carelessly. Some didn’t wash their hands or put on gloves before they touched the bodies. Feng Lei, one of the Changsha school’s young graduates, said that he was shocked to see funeral home staff accepting gifts from the families of the deceased, including cigarettes and liquor.
The young generation of professionally trained morticians, Feng said, are more professional and hardworking. At school they learn technical skills like dissecting and embalming a body, but they also take courses that focus on cultural elements of the funeral service.
Students practice standing in a way that shows respect at the department of funeral services at Changsha Social Work College, Hunan province, Sept. 20, 2016. Cai Yiwen/Sixth Tone
Every night after class, the students practice how to stand and welcome customers with a posture that shows respect. Sometimes they do mock funeral rituals, trying to perfect the smallest details, like how long their steps should be when they walk.
But high demand and professional training haven’t translated into better salaries for this new generation of funeral workers. While it’s easy for them to find jobs, the pay tends to be only slightly above the local average.
Most said that in addition to having a safe job, they genuinely want to help the dead and their mourning relatives. Lu Tong, an 18-year-old freshman, said she hoped her work would help people find closure.
In the students’ eyes, morticians provide a service to society that everyone should respect and care about — but Chinese society doesn’t always share that view.
“Morticians are facing huge social pressure,” Lu Jun, director of the social work college’s funeral service department, told Sixth Tone. Some shopkeepers won’t touch a mortician’s money, he said, and will even use a stick to push the money toward the cash register instead. “The money is thought of as belonging to the dead person, so handling it could bring bad luck,” he explained.
Some students, particularly those from rural areas, told Sixth Tone that their parents opposed their decisions to become morticians on grounds that they would never be able to find suitable partners and have their own families.
After graduation, Feng Lei took a job at a funeral home in Anji County, in eastern Zhejiang province. Like most funeral homes, Feng’s workplace was located in the suburbs. If he wanted to go into town, he had to take a taxi. However, he quickly found out that many drivers wouldn’t take him, while others would only agree if he offered to pay double the fare.
Eventually, the emotional and social pressure became too much for Feng. He said that his parents helped him get a new job as a city official, although he had already been using this as his job title, given that his funeral home technically belonged to the municipality. “When people find out I’m a mortician, they generally try to treat me with respect,” he said. “But then I start to feel that they’re avoiding me and don’t want anything to do with me.”
Some of his classmates, Feng said, also thought about changing careers, although this often was not a viable option unless they had family connections. “Many do not know anything other than funeral service,” Feng said. “But more importantly, the moment a hiring manager sees what we majored in at college, we are rejected.”
An instructor gives a presentation on embalming at the department of funeral services at Changsha Social Work College, Hunan province, Sept. 21, 2016. Cai Yiwen/Sixth Tone
Regardless of whether they stay or try to move on, the young students feel that their years of study and practice as morticians have left an impact on their lives. Most of Wu’s classmates have changed a lot over the past three years of their training, even becoming more considerate toward their parents and the people around them.
Wu said she has also learned that death doesn’t differentiate between the rich and the poor, and that — perhaps most importantly — lives can end abruptly and should be cherished while they last.
“After you have seen so many deaths, you start to appreciate life and the things you have in any given moment,” Wu said. “Our experience is a difficult thing to explain.”
(Header image: Students practice funeral rituals during a mock service at the department of funeral services at Changsha Social Work College, Hunan province, Sept. 20, 2016. Cai Yiwen/Sixth Tone)