This article is part of a series on how Chinese people deal with death.
SHANGHAI — When Chen Jun, a funeral service manager, was arranging the cremation of a 57-year-old woman last month, he received an unusual request. The mother of the deceased was worried about her own funeral. Her son had passed away 10 years ago, and now, without any children, she was afraid that nobody would be around to give her a proper burial after she died. She wanted to know: Could Chen do it?
Owing to deep-seated taboos, Chinese people avoid talking about their own funerals for fear that it will bring bad fortune, and most leave burial arrangements to their next of kin to handle after they die. But the woman, who was in her mid-70s, figured she might be alone when her time came. “She was worried that her husband might leave her first, and she was also concerned about whether she could rely on her son-in-law,” Chen tells Sixth Tone. “Death is unpredictable, and relationships can be fickle.”
Nowadays, when a person passes away without close family members to take care of their funeral arrangements, their distant relatives, warm-hearted neighbors, or former employers typically shoulder the responsibility, according to Liu Fengming, a manager at state-owned Shanghai Funeral and Interment Service Center (FIS). If there truly is nobody to handle matters, the subdistrict — the lowest level of government in Chinese cities — will organize a funeral. But in such cases, people worry that these relative strangers won’t organize a proper send-off and, perhaps worst of all, won’t know whom to invite to the ceremony. As a result, the practice of pre-planning one’s funeral is slowly gaining acceptance.
One reason is demographics. In part due to China’s former one-child policy, many of the nation’s elderly face the prospect of dying alone — though there are no accurate statistics, official or otherwise. A 2012 media report estimated that some 10 million middle-aged couples had lost their children, and that this figure grows by some 760,000 families every year. Another 100 million people either never had children or have kids who live far away — distant enough to make organizing a funeral in time impractical.
In 2011, the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau started a program to arrange funerals for childless people aged 70 or older. The bureau helps them authorize funeral parlors, cemeteries, or sea burial authorities to plan their funeral services. People must pay up front and designate an acquaintance to supervise the process, and the government organizes additional funding to pre-empt any price increases.
Two morticians enter a mourning hall before a funeral in Chongqing, July 15, 2016. Zou Le/VCG
However, the project hasn’t been popular: Shanghai is among the world’s most populous and most aged cities, but in the past seven years, just 12 people have signed up. Unwilling to talk about their own deaths, elderly people are wary about getting in touch, says Liu, who manages the program. He remembers one elderly, childless couple who called the FIS hotline desperate for help, but then suddenly stopped responding. “We checked up on them later,” Liu says. “They were ill when they made the phone call, but after they recovered, they didn’t want to [join the program] anymore and just avoided confronting the issue.”
But the few who have signed up are enthusiastic. “Once elderly people decide to plan their funerals, you find that they have so many good memories of their own lives,” Liu says. “They are very thoughtful about what they want and value their dignity.” One elderly man who had lost his only son had specific requirements for the width, height, and length of his cinerary casket, and had even designed a delicate font for his gravestone, Liu recalls. Another participant, an 83-year-old woman who had never had children and whose husband had died years ago, requested that her favorite song — popular ’90s ballad “Dedication of Love” — be played in place of the usual Chinese dirge. She also wanted the memorial banner to bear her nickname: “Cheerful Grandma, Rest in Peace.”
So far, the program has organized seven funerals. Most of the people who signed up chose to have their ashes scattered at sea, afraid that a traditional grave would see no visitors and end up neglected.
A bouquet sits on a metal chute used for scattering the deceased’s ashes during a sea burial in Shanghai, April 1, 2018. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone
Chen, the funeral service manager, has also experienced firsthand how reluctant the elderly can be to discuss their own funerals. Chen and his colleagues at Fu Shou Yuan International Group, China’s leading funeral and burial service provider, regularly visit local nursing homes. But residents refuse to speak to them upon learning where they work. “The only situation in which they would reach out to us is for other people’s funerals — deep in their hearts, they are anxious,” Chen says.
Nevertheless, compared with the government’s program, commercial pre-planned funeral packages have seen greater popularity, in part because there are no age requirements or other restrictions. Zhao Yu, program director at Fu Shou Yuan, tells Sixth Tone that nine out of 10 clients are in their 40s and 50s and purchase the pre-planning services for their — still living — parents. Zhao says this reflects the trend of Chinese families having fewer children. With smaller families, there are fewer funerals to attend, so many adults have little experience with such services and no idea how to arrange them. And with people living longer, often their children are seniors themselves when the time comes and don’t feel up to the task. In 2017, Fu Shou Yuan signed more than 1,100 “pre-planned funeral contracts” for services starting at 3,000 yuan ($480) that can include hospice care, psychological counseling, and ceremony arrangements. Zhao describes the sales as “beyond our expectations.”
The desire to keep costs low is another motivation to plan ahead. When a person dies and their relatives scramble to organize a funeral, unscrupulous sellers can overcharge for anything from fresh flowers to urns. Zhao still vividly remembers that when someone he knew died, sellers outside the hospital charged the family 8,000 yuan for a cinerary casket worth 100 yuan. “No one can refuse these prices because it’s an urgent need, and nobody is in the mood to bargain,” Zhao says.
Insurance companies have also joined the slowly thawing market for pre-planned funerals. One of the most acceptable ways to bring up the topic of death is through insurance, says Lu Xiaoxiang, founder of insurance startup Niannian — whose name literally means “missing and memorizing.” Outside Lu’s office window, workers climb up and down scaffolding at a construction site. “These workers’ employers will definitely buy them casualty insurance,” Lu tells Sixth Tone. “Frequent flyers will also pay attention to accident insurance, and these days, health insurance is very popular for preventing huge medical costs. But basically, all these types of insurance are closely related to death.”
Lu has worked in insurance in several other countries; he says that in the Netherlands, for example, market research indicates nearly all insurance buyers purchase funeral insurance. But in China, he must be subtler in his approach to make a sale. Niannian’s products, such as injury or illness insurance, will include an additional services section that implicitly reserves funds for a potential funeral. Lu says clients appreciate the ambiguity. Niannian also accepts first-time clients up to a higher age than most other insurers. Currently, the young company has sold more than a thousand of these quietly tacked-on funeral packages.
Last year, 66-year-old Zhang Hongzhen booked funerals for herself, her 89-year-old mother, and her 93-year-old father, buying three 6,000-yuan packages from Fu Shou Yuan, the funeral service provider. Divorced and without children, Zhang tells Sixth Tone she was afraid she might die first and leave her parents the burden of arranging her funeral. Her 62-year-old brother, however, couldn’t quite understand her decision. “Maybe he’s too young to think about death,” Zhang says. “But life is hard to judge. You never know when your life will come to an end — who will go sooner, and who will go later. It’s not wrong to prepare in advance.”
Zhang Hongzhen poses for a photo during a trip to Pompeii, Italy, April 25, 2015. Courtesy of Zhang Hongzhen
Zhang’s older brother died of lung cancer in 2016. “It devastated my parents,” she says, grimacing and wiping her left eye. Zhang believes her brother could have lived longer if he hadn’t undergone so much chemotherapy. This is another reason why Zhang opted for the pre-planned packages: “The hospice care included in the deal is attractive to me. If a person is leaving the world, forcing him to stay alive on a ventilator is meaningless,” Zhang says. “What he needs is comfort, pain relief, and guidance for his family as they deal with his death.”
After she retired in 2003, Zhang took up traveling. She recalls visiting Hallstatt, a village in Austria with a historic “bone house.” Hundreds of decorated skulls are on display inside, taken from bodies exhumed at the small local cemetery to make room for new burials. Many of the skulls are inscribed with the deceased’s names and dates of birth and death, as well as symbolic designs. Zhang was impressed with how the village had found a sustainable, respectful solution to their problem. “Since then,” says Zhang, “I have started to feel that death is not a horrible thing, and neither are funerals.”
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: An elderly woman sits in a cemetery in Beijing, March 7, 2010. Zhang Mo/VCG)