May 29, 2014 06:25 PM

Closer Look: Why the Elderly Are Killing Themselves over Burial Reform

(Beijing) – My hometown of Anqing, in the eastern province of Anhui, has received a lot of attention recently for a wrong and sad reason: six elderly people have reportedly killed themselves – and more have tried to – because they want to die before a government deadline for burial reform.

All residents of Anqing who die after June 1 must be cremated, the government said in April. Both in 1994 and again in 2006 it tried to persuade people to stop traditional burials – which see the deceased put in a coffin that is lowered into the ground after elaborate rituals – but those attempts failed.

This time around, elderly people somehow became convinced that the government means what it says. If you knew how much a senior citizen where I come from values a coffin and a traditional burial, you would understand that they have not just killed themselves to avoid cremation. They died defending a belief, however superstitious and wasteful that may seem to other people.

When my grandfather died in the 1990s, his burial was performed exactly the way his ancestors had been doing it for thousands of years. His body was placed in a well-prepared coffin and put in a miniature house in the woods for three years before he was buried.

Not many people follow the ritual as rigorously these days, but the elderly still view a coffin as very important. A good coffin often requires 10 trees to be chopped down and a skilled carpenter two weeks to prepare. The owner celebrates its completion by inviting friends and relatives over for meals.

The custom is not limited to Anqing, but it is particularly stubborn there. Recent figures show that on average eight out of every 10 bodies in Anhui were cremated rather than directly placed in a coffin and buried. The figure for Anqing was only about one in 10.

The city government is determined to change that. By the end of the year, the percentage of people cremated must be raised to 50 percent, it says. By 2016 it must be 70 percent.

This determined push for change has caused tragedies. On May 12, 97-year-old Wu Xiuli, from Zongyang County, who was bent on "sleeping in a coffin" as his son said, died after refusing to eat and drink for days. The next day, Zhang Wenying, a villager in the same county, hanged herself from a tree outside her home.

The families say that had the city government not seized and destroyed coffins, these people would still be alive. Authorities in Anqing deny taking coffins, but an official in Tongcheng, an area governed by Anqing, said on May 25 that the government has destroyed about 45,000 coffins. Only about 800 remained in private possession, he said, and "the government will be paying close attention to those who keep a coffin at home."

One reason the government says it is promoting cremation over burial is that it saves farmland and trees. This argument has its doubters.

"People in many regions put their urns in a coffin and bury it, so the goal of saving trees is not achieved," said Yu Jianrong, a research fellow on rural development issues at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a major government-backed think tank.

"Also, in mountainous regions, the land used for burial is not intended for farming anyway, so it does not serve the purpose of saving farmland."

For its argument to hold water, the government must conduct surveys to demonstrate with evidence how much farmland and how many trees would be saved, he said.

Lawyers have also argued that coffins are the private assets of people, so taking and destroying them violates property rights and reflects the government's lack of respect for the law.

This is not the first time elderly people have committed suicide ahead of burial reform. A decade ago elderly people in Zhejiang, which borders Anhui to the east, and in Hubei, which borders it to the west, killed themselves so they could be buried the traditional way before new regulations came into effect, said He Xuefeng, a researcher at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.

There have been suggestions that governments like the one in Anqing should be trying to ease into making changes. Rural villages should start building public cemeteries to hold cremains, said Zheng Fengtian, vice dean of Renmin University's School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development.

More importantly, the implementation of policies should take into account the needs of people of different ages, he said. People in their 80s and 90s, for example, should be permitted to have a burial the way they choose.

"They hold an earth burial dear to their hearts, so forcing them to be cremated will lead to severe conflicts," he said.

(Rewritten by Wang Yuqian)

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