The Lives of China’s Young Undertakers
The first time Zhang Rui saw a coroner working on a dead body, the experience left her shaken.
“I was totally shocked. At that moment, my mind went blank,” she says. “My eyes didn’t know what they were looking at.”
She sat outside and eventually calmed down. After all, she knew it was a sight she would have to get used to. It was what she’d been training to do.
Zhang Rui, a student at the Beijing College of Social Administration is preparing for a career in China’s small but expanding funeral service industry. In 2018, the funeral sector was estimated to be worth about 200 billion yuan ($31 billion), and as China’s population ages, demand for trained morticians is only projected to grow.
Despite the need, deep-seated stigmas surrounding death in Chinese culture mean the profession remains taboo. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, China only had 4,043 funeral agencies in 2018, less than one-quarter the amount in the United States, and the country graduates less than 1,000 students from funeral service-related majors every year. BCSA, where Zhang is a student, is currently one of only seven institutions to offer a funeral service major.
The students in these programs often must contend with parental opposition to their chosen profession. Zhang Rui says she hid her studies from her parents for two years, until a transcript revealed her funeral-related courses. Li Dairong, another BCSA student, says her mother deeply disapproves of her major.
“My mother is very superstitious,” says Li. “She says we can’t make money off of dead people.”
According to one study, 90% of funeral service workers say they face discrimination. Some even comes from within the industry, with Zhang Rui claiming she’s unlikely to get a job as a funeral attendant because her physical appearance is not good enough. Zhang Sheng, a longtime cemetery worker and BCSA graduate, says he wishes he could change his profession because of the disappointing reality of funeral work, which he declares is “basically a sales job.”
But the students currently pursuing coursework in embalming, bereavement counseling, and cremation technology are not deterred by the tough work ahead.
“I think it’s a great undertaking,” Zhang says. “As the (classic Buddhist) saying goes: If I do not descend into hell, who will?”
Editors: Hannah Lund and Ye Yuhui.
(Header image: Students work on model heads to practice undertaking skills at the Beijing College of Social Administration in Beijing, June 20, 2019. Li Siwen and Zhang Zhiyan for Sixth Tone)