Go green, in death as in life

China is advocating environmentally friendly funerals, but most people still prefer traditional burial ceremonies. Cultural change cannot be forced, writes Huo Weiya, but awareness can be raised.

A new type of funeral – the “ecological funeral” – is being advocated by China’s government and media, with suitable memorial parks established in many areas.

Ecological funerals refer to new “tree funerals”, “flower funerals”, “grass funerals” and “water funerals”. In the first three types, the ashes of the deceased person are spread on earth in which trees, flowers or grass is planted. In water funerals, the ashes are scattered over a river or the sea.

Such funerals represent China’s second reform of funeral customs. In the first reform, cremation replaced burials. Now the ashes are not retained, but are returned to nature.

Traditionally, burial was the main form of funeral in China. But in 1956, 151 senior officials — including Mao Zedong, Zhu De, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, signed a document calling for the use of cremation. In 1985 the State Council published regulations stipulating that cremation should be carried out in areas that are densely populated or lacking in arable land, with punishments for public officials who did not comply. Cremation then became the most common form of funeral, with the deceased’s ashes stored in one form of memorial or another.

In China, 100,000 mu of land – nearly 70 square kilometres — are used every year for those memorials, along with large quantities of bricks, concrete and marble. And these figures are expanding. The land used is not replaced, and we are faced with the dead and the living competing for space.

The ashes of Zhou Enlai were scattered in the air over Beijing, the Miyun reservoir and the Hai and Yellow Rivers in 1976. Deng Xiaoping’s ashes were scattered over the sea in 1997. Both of these ceremonies can be considered water funerals.

In many ways, these ecological funerals meet the needs of the times, especially in our cities. The Chinese population is getting older faster, and there is a shortage of land, so there is a risk of having nowhere to build traditional cemeteries. With the Chinese tradition of lavish funeral ceremonies, burial costs are spiralling. In some cases, a funeral can cost more than a house, and people speak of being able to afford to live, but not to die. A recent case exposed by China Central Television (CCTV) — of a village official in Guangdong who felled 24 mu (16,000 square metres) of forest to create a luxury cemetery — highlights the environmental dangers of these traditions.

Ecological funerals use little or no land. What they do use is not covered with a gravestone, but with plants. As it happens, China’s Tomb-Sweeping Festival – when relatives of the deceased visit and maintain graves and memorials — fell in April, just as plants are growing and flowering. Memorial parks will double as green spaces.

Popularising this practice would save both costs and land, and increase the amount of green space.

Despite all this, however, many media reports published after this year’s Tomb-Sweeping Festival showed that only a minority of people choose ecological funerals.

The Chinese people traditionally plant trees beside graves, particularly in rural areas. The tree is believed to host the spirit of the departed, and the death of one of these trees is seen as a bad omen. The same worries are expressed about tree, flower and grass funerals. There is even less acceptance of water funerals. Many people feel that there is nowhere for the bereaved to focus their grief.

“The old burial practices have existed for thousands of years. You can’t replace them overnight,” says Zhu Huamin, head of the Shanghai Burial Culture Institute. “I think for some time to come, ecological funerals will only be accepted by some people.”

Attachment to the idea of traditional funerals is the greatest current obstacle to ecological funerals in China. Despite the earlier reforms, cremation still is not accepted in rural areas, and 50% of Chinese funerals involve burial. The success or failure of this second round of reform rests on changing those deep-rooted cultural beliefs.

The government has no specific regulations on ecological funerals. In April the Legal Daily reported that the drafting of the Funeral Management Regulations, first published in 2007, is due to be completed this year. According to Di Yingqi, a representative in the National People’s Congress, the draft doesn’t mention ecological funerals.

In order to meet targets during the earlier reforms, local governments attempted to make cremation compulsory, but to little effect. Burials took place in secret, and corruption resulted, especially in rural areas. Di argues that a funeral law should be drafted, providing for a range of funeral styles.

Both the current financial crisis and China’s long-standing sustainable development strategy require a shift to the environmentally friendly in the economic, social and cultural sectors. Funeral practices are no different, but using legal and administrative measures to do so will have little effect, at best. You cannot force cultural changes. It is not a matter of law and institutions, but of raising environmental awareness among the people. Then will choose more environmentally friendly ways of life – and death — of their own accord.

Huo Weiya is operations and development manager for chinadialogue in Beijing and former editor-in-chief ofEnvironmental Culture Newsletter, published by Green Student Forum, an environmental NGO established in 1996.

What are your views? Do you support environmentally friendly funerals, or do you prefer traditional burials? Are young people more open to new forms of funeral ceremony? Do concessions to customs need to be made, given the conflicting demands on available land? Let us know on the forum what you think.

 Homepage photo by hunangov