Illustrations: Peter C. Espina/GT
"I can't afford to die!" Absurd as it sounds, it is on the mind of many senior citizens in China. With skyrocketing cost for funeral services - up to tens of thousands of yuan, gravesites charging 300,000 yuan ($43,493) and 10,000 ($1,450) for an urn, the death of a relative (funeral, cremation and burial) may cost some families ten years' worth of their income. Soaring prices for funeral services have again made headlines following the just-concluded Qingming Festival, a time when people sweep the tombs and venerate their deceased loved ones.
For the majority of Chinese, the departed have to be buried underground so that they can rest in peace. This traditional outlook on death is the main factor boosting the expense for these services. Limited land resources have resulted in competitions for burial plots, especially those with better fengshui - locations said to bring more blessings to the offspring in the old Chinese belief system. Some "high grade" graves in Shanghai are sold at 300,000 yuan each. Suzhou has started to ban outsiders from purchasing burial spots there. Worse still, the aging population in China has aggravated the already-intense competition for land.
In addition, many believe a decent funeral is a way to show their respect and love for the departed, and thus, are willing to spend unreasonably high amount of money on afterlife services for their loved ones. For mourners, the deceased relative deserves an extravagant funeral after spending a whole lifetime providing for and taking care of the family.
Demands bring business. Brokers are fully aware of and have taken advantage of the mourners' mentality to set the price for funeral service items. Take paper effigies as an example. It is a Chinese tradition to burn paper effigies of houses, cars, phones and even skincare products, for the deceased to be used in the afterlife. Costing just dozens of yuan to make, the effigies are sometimes priced at hundreds of yuan in the funeral market. More absurdly, prices for paper villas vary greatly from that for paper apartments. Fake luxury-branded skincare products are even priced higher than the real ones.
Arranging a decent funeral to show respect to loved ones is understandable, and moderate investments in the funeral industry is also a way to boost the economy. However, the so-called extravagant funeral will only increase burdens on the whole family if it costs too much. Spending years of income on the funeral is not what the deceased would be happy and gratified to see either. Instead of wasting large amounts of money on the funeral, people should care more about and spend more time on their loved ones in their lifetime.
Prices for these services will also decrease if people's view on burial is changed. Shanghai has already started to promote the ecological burial - placing cremated ashes into a biodegradable urn before burying it underground. Regrettably, just a few citizens have accepted this option, according to media reports. Sea burial and other ecological options will alleviate the intense competition for land, and help reduce the skyrocketing prices for the dying.
Funeral was originally designed to express people's respect and grief to the departed. However, it has gradually derailed from its original purpose of mourning to a way for cemetery brokers to accumulate wealth. This is great disrespect to the deceased. Our loved departed friends and relatives want our wholehearted and sincere veneration more than paper houses, fancy graves or extravagant funerals.
The author is a reporter with the Global Times. firstname.lastname@example.org