A sea change in burial ser­vices

Fam­ily mem­bers find­ing new ways to spread loved ones’ ashes

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA - By HE DAN hedan@chi­nadaily.com.cn

More Chi­nese fam­i­lies are opt­ing to bury their loved ones at sea be­cause of the re­cent rise in lo­cal govern­ment sub­si­dies and ser­vices for the prac­tice.

He Qingxun, head of the burial and fu­neral man­age­ment di­vi­sion at the Min­istry of Civil Af­fairs, said on Tues­day that more ur­ban res­i­dents are choos­ing sea buri­als through the en­cour­age­ment of lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

“Many coastal ar­eas and some in­land cities with con­ve­nient ac­cess to the sea have been pro­mot­ing sea buri­als among the pub­lic,” he said.

In cities such as Bei­jing and Shang­hai, gov­ern­ments are now of­fer­ing free sea buri­als or cash sub­si­dies to fam­i­lies. In re­cent years, in­ter­est in sea buri­als has peaked around Tomb Sweep­ing Day, which falls on April 5 this year, he said.

Su Jian, a re­tiree from a loan and trust com­pany in Bei­jing, said the Bei­jing Bureau of Civil Af­fairs helped him scat­ter the ashes of his par­ents in the Bo­hai Sea off the coast of north­ern China.

The 61-year-old said that apart from free trans­porta­tion, food and bev­er­ages for the half-day trip to the Port of Tian­jin, the or­ga­niz­ers also pro­vided flow­ers and but­ter­flies as part of the ser­vices.

“Flower petals ac­com­pa­nied the re­lease of the but­ter­flies and solemn mu­sic — it felt like we hugged our beloved ones who were in heaven,” he said.

“Life started from the ocean, so my fam­ily be­lieves that re­turn­ing to the sea is the best way to em­brace na­ture. We think my par­ents will be able to reach out to any­where in the world to see my fam­ily mem­bers in dif­fer­ent places,” he said, adding that most of his fam­ily mem­bers have set­tled down in Tai­wan, Ger­many and the United States.

Bei­jing be­gan pro­mot­ing sea buri­als in 1994. Wang De­dong, di­rec­tor of the Bei­jing Fu­neral Ser­vice Cen­ter, said the num­ber of fam­i­lies opt­ing for the ser­vice is ex­pected to dou­ble to 2,400 com­pared with 2013.

“Pre­vi­ously, only a few young people or those in fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties would choose sea buri­als, but the sit­u­a­tion is chang­ing. Now of­fi­cials, well-ed­u­cated people and those from other back­grounds are com­fort­able with it,” he said.

The prac­tice ac­counts for about 2 per­cent of the an­nual fu­ner­ary ser­vices sec­tor but he said, “fu­ture prospects are very promis­ing”.

The Bei­jing Fu­neral Ser­vice Cen­ter, con­sid­ered the only ser­vice provider in the cap­i­tal au­tho­rized to per­form sea buri­als, waives all ser­vice fees for Bei­jing res­i­dents but charges 380 yuan ($61) for those with­out a Bei­jing hukou, or per­ma­nent res­i­dency per­mit.

“The ser­vice is not avail­able for for­eign­ers yet,” he said.

The city govern­ment is also con­sid­er­ing build­ing a ves­sel large enough to carry 500 people and pro­vide more ash scat­ter­ing tours dur­ing the spring and au­tumn sea­sons to meet the ris­ing de­mand, he said.

The scat­ter­ing of ashes at sea is also be­com­ing more pop­u­lar in other Chi­nese cities. In Shang­hai, more than 28,000 res­i­dents have been buried at sea since the govern­ment be­gan pro­mot­ing it in 1991. Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics, the ser­vice has helped to save 8.3 hectares of land.

Lo­cal me­dia re­ported last month that 122 fam­i­lies from Harbin, Hei­longjiang prov­ince, opted for the ser­vice, five times more than in 2013.

Wang Guo­hua, deputy di­rec­tor of the com­mit­tee of ex­perts at the China Fu­neral As­so­ci­a­tion, said a sea burial is an eco­log­i­cally friendly and eco­nom­i­cally sound choice in the coastal re­gions.

“As a pop­u­lous coun­try, there will be less and less space for the liv­ing if we con­tinue the tra­di­tional prac­tice of land buri­als,” he said.

“Sea buri­als help to save con­sid­er­able land re­sources.”

Xiao Chenglong, di­rec­tor of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Mon­i­tor­ing Cen­ter Sta­tion un­der the Min­istry of Civil Af­fairs, said sea buri­als can be a more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly choice, but also said ser­vice providers should avoid con­tam­i­nat­ing ma­rine in­dus­tries such as fish­ing and sea­weed farm­ing along the coastal ar­eas.

XU PEIQIN / FOR CHINA DAILY

A man pre­pares to scat­ter the ashes of his dead rel­a­tive in the sea off Nan­tong, Jiangsu prov­ince, on Tues­day.

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