Around 10 million people die in China each year. Of these about 50% are cremated. The Chinese authorities have looked at ways of reforming burials in China, in order to deal with the lack of space and high prices of burials in certain areas.
Each cremation releases around 160 kg of carbon dioxide, so around 800,000 tons of CO2 are released into the atmosphere each year in China, as a result of cremations! As China’s population ages, this amount is likely to increase.
The policy of promoting cremations over traditional burials was to preserve farmland. However, according to an article in The Conversation, over 13,000 ha have been used for crematoria, funeral parlours and depositories for cremated ash (Gau and Short, 2012).
The cremation policy has not always been popular. In 2014, six elderly people in Anhui province killed themselves before a government deadline for burials to be replaced by cremations took effect.
There have been calls to replace cremations with natural earth burials. This involves placing a body in a biodegradable bag, burying the body in the ground and placing a tree over the body. This would allow the body to naturally decompose and the nutrients could be taken up by the tree. One traditional Chinese belief was that the body could only be at peace when it is buried in the soil.
Traditional burials are more common, and popular in rural areas compared with urban areas. Earlier this year, officials in Jiangxi province removed coffins from the homes of elderly residents and destoyed them. Many elderly buy coffins a long time before they die, as they are said to bring good luck and longevity to the owners (Kuo, 2018).
A further development has been burial at sea. A number of cities, such as Shanghai, are encouraging the practice. In Shanghai, a 1 m2 burial plot can cost about $4000. Shanghai has offered sea burials for free, and these now make up around 1.5% of the 11,000 annual burials. One further reason for sea burials, is that there is said to be arranged marriages for deceased members fueling the practice of graverobbing. Four men in Shanxi province were jailed for stealing and selling female corpses (Kuo, 2013).
Although Chairman Mao banned traditional burials and favoured cremation for all, he was embalmed and his body is located in the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Gau, Yuan and Roger Short. 2012. “Dying green: environmentally friendly burials in China.” The Conversation, 12 October 2012. https://theconversation.com/dying-green-environmentally-friendly-burials-in-china-9857
Kuo, Lily. 2013. “Short of space, China encourages its citizens to bury their dead at sea.” Quartz, 01 April 2013. https://qz.com/69007/short-of-space-china-encourages-its-citizens-to-bury-their-dead-at-sea/
Kuo, Lily. 2018. “Outcry as coffins crushed in Chinese ‘zero-burial’ campaign.” The Guardian, 01 August 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/01/outcry-as-coffins-crushed-in-chinese-zero-burial-campaign