A man cleans the tombstone of a deceased relative during the Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day at Songhe graveyard, on the outskirts of Shanghai April 4, 2013. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)
A man cleans the tombstone of a deceased relative during the Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day, at Songhe graveyard on the outskirts of Shanghai in April 2013. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Two officials in China's southern Guangdong province were arrested after it emerged that they had bought corpses from local grave-robbers and had them cremated in a bid to fulfill state-mandated quotas for such funeral practices. The incident is yet another reminder of the awkward tension between Beijing's edicts and entrenched traditions in parts of rural China.

The arrested duo were officials responsible for local funerary practices, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. One allegedly paid a grave-robber $489 each for 10 exhumed corpses. The officials needed to meet expected quotas for cremations reported in their jurisdictions (towns that state media has not specified). Many locals entomb their kin in secret to skirt state laws regarding burial, which probably made the officials' job rather difficult.

"Pushed to meet their quota, the two officials sought to purchase the corpses and send them to funeral parlour for cremation," Xinhua reported.

China's traditions of ancestor worship mean that many families prefer to bury their deceased loved ones, keeping them intact rather than reduced to ash and bone in a crematorium. But this runs up against a newer reality. Despite the country's continental size, China is starved of arable land and communities are discouraged to take up more space for cemeteries. In 2012, the provincial government in the central province of Henan even went so far as to raze hundreds of thousands of tombs to clear space for agricultural land, much to the ire of locals.

Body-snatching is, therefore, a lucrative, illicit business, involving bribe-taking local officials who look the other way, specialists capable of dressing up cadavers, and middlemen willing to connect desperate families to organized rings of grave-robbers and body-snatchers.

The practice of burying "ghost brides" also remains very much in the headlines. The old ritual involves burying a deceased young female alongside a dead bachelor, so the male will not be without a companion in the afterlife.

Last week, Chinese authorities arrested 11 people in eastern Shandong province for exhuming the grave of a woman and selling the body to a middleman for about $3,000. Four men in March 2013 were sentenced to two years in jail after allegedly making $40,000 from selling 10 stolen corpses. In 2006, one man in northern Hebei province even killed six women to sell them as ghost brides.

Beginning with the rule of Communist leader Mao Zedong, corpse-stealing has been a criminal act in China, but Beijing has been unable to fully stamp out the custom in rural areas. In a chilling episode in May, a number of elderly residents in southeastern Anhui province opted to commit suicide before local restrictions regarding coffin burials came into full effect.