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Short on graves, China turns to sea burials

Workers of the Changchun Funeral Home put the ashes of the dead into the sea during a commonweal sea burial in Dalian in northeast China. With prices of graves skyrocketing, the Chinese government is trying to encourage sea burials. (Fang Xinwu/ColorChinaPhoto/AP)

In this country of almost 1.4 billion people, life is an unending struggle for resources — money, property, even spouses. And it doesn’t get easier in death.

Prices for graves are skyrocketing, driven by decades of unbridled development and scarce city land. The government’s answer to this conundrum: sea burials.

Officials across China are selling hard the option of a watery grave by offering hefty financial incentives and planting stories in state media — with only marginal success. Many local governments, however, have saved their strongest pitches for this week, timing them to the Qingming Festival, when families nationwide take a day off to sweep their ancestors’ graves.

In the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, officials recently announced a $160 bonus for families that scatter ashes at sea. In Shanghai, officials upped their offer in the past year from $65 to a more persuasive $320. Topping them all, however, are the coastal cities of Shaoxing and Wenzhou, which are offering $800 and $1,290, respectively, for sea burials.

To sweeten the deal, the government often provides transportation, including all-expense-paid boat trips.

The official eagerness is fueled by bureaucratic fears of chaos and anger once the country runs out of graves — a certainty in coming years, according to recent studies.

To cut down on space, cremation already is required by law in cities, but land shortages have increasingly sparked risky investments for even the small graves in which those ashes are usually interred.

The cheapest spots in some of Beijing’s more desirable cemeteries sell for more than $16,000, and Chinese media reports have cited luxury tombs sold for as much as $129,000. With virtually unlimited demand, many come with hefty maintenance fees after an initial 20-year lease and guarantee eviction if they go unpaid.

And the problem will only get worse as China’s elderly population increases. In 2011, 9.6 million people died in China. A government report issued last week predicts the number will reach 20 million annually by 2025.

Most provinces will run out of burial room in the next 10 years, according to the study by the Ministry of Civil Affairs. A few provinces — such as Shanxi, Shandong and Guangdong — have fewer than five years.

Beijing’s leaders recently told state media that they are planning to shrink grave sizes this year — from the current limit of one square meter per person — to stretch their reserves.

Amid these dire straits, local officials began floating the sea burial idea in the past few years. The government-funded version of it — offered by most bigger cities — can resemble a half-day cruise.

On the morning of the burials, dozens of families take a shuttle bus en masse to a dock, ashes in tow. Out at sea, an organizer holds a service, then leads relatives in mixing the remains with flowers. At an appointed spot, the ashes are cast overboard.

Critics worry that tradition and the meaning of ancestor-honoring rites are being tossed out amid the government initiatives.

“Han Chinese have been burying their dead for thousands of years,” noted Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at Renmin University in Beijing. “It’s not wrong to subsidize sea burials. . . but saving land shouldn’t be the deciding factor for how someone chooses to be buried. China’s land belongs to all Chinese. Why shouldn’t they get one square meter to lay down in when they die?”

It’s not the first time the government has tried to regulate its citizens after death. After the communists took control in 1949, millions of graves were plowed over in the following years and remade into farmland. Funerals were considered superstitious vestiges of feudalism, coffins wasted wood and graves wasted farmland.

Cremation — long shunned — was promoted as practical, even patriotic. Even Communist Party leader Mao Zedong had declared his wish to be cremated (in vain it turns out, as successors embalmed his body for permanent display in Tiananmen Square).

Although laws have made cremation almost universal in cities, the government’s sea burial initiatives have not had the same success.

Since Guangzhou announced its $160 subsidy this year, fewer than 20 people have registered. In Shanghai — one of the earliest to employ sea burials, in the 1990s — the practice has barely made a dent. In 2010, sea burials numbered in the low thousands while grave burials totaled 53,311.

Speaking to local media this week, Lu Chunling, the chief of Shanghai’s mortuary service division, tried to strike an optimistic tone. There’s a chance, he said, that if the city is careful with its remaining grave space, it will run out in 15 years rather than in 10.

Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

William Wan is the Post's roving national correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He previously served as the paper’s religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent and for three years as the Post’s China correspondent in Beijing.

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