This week, seven families laid the remains of their loved ones to rest in the Tianshou cemetery on the outskirts of Beijing. But these were burials with a difference. The families rode in golf carts made to look like hearses and scattered flower petals over a small plot of grass where biodegradable jars containing the ashes of their relatives were buried.
The area reserved for the green burials can fit more 2,000 of the jars, buried in layers in the ground, without any especially delineated plots. The same area would only hold about 500 to 600 traditional grave plots, according to Tianshou.
Officials have been trying to promote “eco burials” like these as Chinese cities run out of land to bury their dead and the price of grave plots continues to soar, often surpassing the price per square metre of an apartment. There’s a common saying: “Can’t afford to die, can’t afford to be buried.”
On Friday, cemeteries across China filled with those paying respects to their ancestors on qingming jie, or tomb-sweeping festival, by tending to their graves and leaving offerings of food and burning incense and paper money. While the majority of families will be kneeling at traditional graves, more Chinese are opting for cheaper, alternative burials.
Tianshou, the private cemetery operator which offered the eco burial service for free in conjunction with the local civil affairs bureau, says that while the vast majority of their burials are traditional graves, more people are asking about green burials.
“Public acceptance of eco burials is improving. In the beginning, people were very resilient, but after two years of promoting it, every year there are people willing to take part in it,” says Sun Ying, director of marketing and planning at Tianshou. “I think in the future, there will be more and more people joining this land-saving way of burial.”
Sea burials and digital flowers
Changing long-held customs revolving around ancestor worship, which dates back more than 2,500 years in China, has been difficult. While observance varies across the country, for many, taking care of one’s ancestors in death is a key cultural tradition and show of filial piety.
China’s rapid urbanisation has meant that families who once buried their relatives in family plots near their homes no longer have the space. Speculation also plays a role as people buy grave plots ahead of time, fearing prices will be higher later, or buy up large tracts to sell later.
For that reason, cemetery plots are in high demand. In cities like Beijing, the average price is more than 100,000 yuan ($14,000). Traditional grave plots in Tianshou, one of the most popular cemeteries in Beijing, cost between 29,800 yuan to 288,000 yuan ($4,300 to $42,000), according to its website. In some cities, families have simply bought apartments to house the cremated remains of their relatives, according to real estate agents.
The government has tried to change ideas about death through directives and incentives. In 2016, officials issued guidelines for encouraging more burials within nature, rather than delineating plots for tombs and memorials. In a revised law on funeral management in September, the central government called on local governments to provide financial support for public cemeteries, which would be cheaper for residents.
Shanghai has been promoting sea burials, offering subsidies to funeral operators and families. Others have been offering additional services to make green burials more appealing. The Anxian Yuan cemetery in China’s eastern Zhejiang province provides an app families can use to scan a QR code on a tree or other fixture near where their relatives are buried. Instead of tending to an actual grave, families can light a digital candle or leave digital flowers for the deceased.
But not all efforts have been successful. Local officials implementing a “zero burial” policy in the southern province of Jiangxi came under fire last year when videos surfaced showing elderly villagers weeping as authorities smashed coffins, in one case dumping a corpse out in front of a family.
“It is still very hard for a regular Chinese person to know they are not going to be buried in the land,” said Keping Wu, an anthropologist focusing on religion and social memory at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.
Wu believes any widespread shift in burial customs may take time. “I do think the attitudes toward burials will be changing in the new generations. People, especially the younger generation in their 20s and 30s, they probably do not care so much about being buried under ground. So maybe green burials will be a trend in the future,” she said.
Additional reporting by Lillian Yang