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Chinese cemetery promotes frugal, green funerals

2014-04-07 08:01 Xinhua Web Editor: qindexing
Paper made iPads and iPhones become popular offerings for Qingming Festival in China. The coming Qingming Festival is a traditional Chinese festival. People take this opportunity to pay respects to the deceased. [Photo/CNS]

Paper made "iPads" and "iPhones" become popular offerings for Qingming Festival in China. The coming Qingming Festival is a traditional Chinese festival. People take this opportunity to pay respects to the deceased. [Photo/CNS]

A cemetery in north China's Shanxi Province has led the way for the country's drive to make funerals more frugal and green by promoting free non-traditional "tree funerals" in the run-up to Tomb-sweeping Day, an occasion for worshipping ancestors.

The special funerals, chosen by 22 families at Xianjuyuan Cemetery in the provincial capital of Taiyuan, allowed them to place the ashes of a loved one under a tree in a biodegradable urn. The container and its contents will eventually become part of the soil nourishing the tree.

A tearful Ms. Li left her urn, which holds her father's ashes, by the roots of a cypress tree at the cemetery.

"If my father were still alive, he would be 97, which is coincidentally the serial number given to this cypress under the scheme. In some way, the tree is like his incarnation," said Taiyuan resident Li.

As the austerity drive launched by the Communist Party of China in 2012 to combat extravagance goes deeper across the country, Chinese have restrained their spending on family funerals, traditionally viewed as a measurement of their filial piety but also wealth and social standing.

Xianjuyuan Cemetery, in suburban Taiyuan, views the tree funerals as a good way to show condolence and save money at the same time.

"This is somewhat different from the traditional way of holding funerals in China, where ashes are usually preserved permanently," said Wang Haiyan, the cemetery's marketing manager, who began publicizing the tree funerals in late March.

"We received many calls asking about the details," said Wang, explaining that the urn will degrade and become part of the soil in three to six months in a humid environment.

Chinese attach great importance to funerals. The prosperity of the national economy in recent decades has also given rise to more luxurious versions. This has thrown a significant financial burden on the bereaved.

According to Wang, a tree funeral normally costs 1,000 yuan (around 170 U.S. dollars), while the cost of a more conventional funeral in Taiyuan can range from 20,000 to 80,000 yuan (3,000 to 13,000 U.S. dollars),

"The cost is a burden for some families, so tree funerals are a more economical option for them. Plus, it's much better for the environment," she said.

Wang's thinking was shared by Ms. Jia, who was at the cemetery to bury her younger brother. She admitted a normal funeral was too expensive for her to afford. "If the ashes of my brother can grow into a tree, it will be like a continuation of his life," she said.

The cemetery plans to offer free tree funerals once again on July 15 of the lunar calendar, known as the Ghost Festival and regarded as another important occasion for Chinese to mourn the deceased.

The scheme has won much official support.

"We hope the tree funeral promotion can be a breakthrough in our work to promote green funerals," said Guo Yonghong, head of Taiyuan's funeral administrative center.

According to Guo, Chinese funerals in recent years have involved the scattering of ashes in gardens and at sea. However, authorities have found it difficult to promote green ways of commemorating the dead in the face of overwhelming preference for more traditional ceremonies.

More than 10,000 bodies are cremated in Taiyuan every year. Since the late 1990s, however, only 3,000 have adopted green funerals like those at sea or Xianjuyuan Cemetery's tree funerals.

"Even among those families who agree to green funerals, some insist on wrapping the urn in a plastic box to stop it decaying. This is contrary to our intentions, actually," Guo admitted.

"It takes time for the public to embrace a new tradition like green and simple funerals, and we plan to draft more polices to promote the drive," she said.

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