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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.

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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

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Education and policy implementation

Upon reading this article, I was really surprised. In 2008, China’s burial rate still exceeded 50%! I was under the impression that cremation was already quite widespread. This indicates that in rural areas views are still rather behind the times. The most important thing should be to find the most suitable way to change these views. I personally believe this has a lot to do with education. Modern scholastic education includes conveying information to rural areas; we must increase the transmission of knowledge concerning environmental protection. Furthermore, since the state established correlated laws as early as 1985, why have the results been so lacking? It is rather doubtful that the government can implement such a policy.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



在国外,经常在很多公共花园里的树下,包括供游人休息的长凳上,看到刻着“仅以此纪念我们最亲爱的XXX —— 某某某, 某年某月”的句子。我猜测后人们花钱购买了树苗及长凳,并将此捐赠给公园。


Entrusting green thinking

Besides the traditional funeral and burial for ancestors, for example, especially people living in cities, would expect descendants prove filial respect by setting up a stone monument as a sign of family members' mourning. In this respect, we can find better and greener ways.
Overseas, one can find inscriptions of "Commemorating our dearest XXX - - which year which month' in public parks, including engravings on public benches. I guess that the concerned people spent money to buy the plant seeds and benches which they donated to the park.
Although I am not sure of how to dispose of the ashes, I believe that to be buried under a tree or in the land beneath a bench would be of great significance.
Bearing in mind that both the ancestors making cities and communities greener as well as allowing visitors witnessing mourning for the missing loved ones and to promote the development of the green grief approach.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


绿色葬礼是令人振奋的想法。就个人而言,我想成为一个人工珊瑚礁。非常重要的一点,人们要让家人和朋友知道他们的个人葬礼偏好。至于机关捐赠,人们在意志里应该包括他们的偏好。否则,其他人要做出决定 -- 并且那些决定也许去反对死者的信仰和愿望.MEB

An Earth-friendly option

Green funerals are an uplifting idea. Personally, I would like to become part of an artificial coral reef.
One point: it's important for people to let their family and friends know their personal funeral preferences. As with organ donation, people should include their preferences in their wills. Otherwise, others will be making the decisions -- and those decisions may go against the beliefs and wishes of the deceased. -- MEB

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Juggling environmental protection and traditional ways of life

In China, there is a saying “buried and at rest” (R.I.P). Burial is considered a type of spiritual and cultural heritage that is deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of the people. It is difficult to transform the public’s attitude towards burial in such a short period of time. Choosing how to bury the dead is often not a matter of personal conduct, but rather one that concerns one’s entire household. Of course it is important for younger generations to advocate the concept of ecological burial; however, I am afraid it will be quite a long time before they are no longer bound by the burial arrangements chosen by other family members. Therefore, it seems that in order for this type of ecological concept to make a significant impact in a short period of time, it is crucial that we, on behalf of the government and in accordance with the law, carry out the dissemination of these concepts to the vast rural areas in a way that is far-reaching and long-lasting. Integrating ecological burial practices into Huinong’s policies will perhaps be effective in allowing people to realistically benefit from the transformation of burial practices.
Translated by Afra Tucker

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



on comment2

This romantic practice would be sure nice, but the difference on the view of death between east and west can not be ignored. Chinese people, more or less, stand in awe and fear of the dead. I am afraid sitting on these chairs would, therefore, made the citizens feel uneasy. It is even harder to make the farmers accept.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The funeral system and go green

In fact, I personally believe that China's funeral tradition already has a history of thousands of years and bears a lot of good traditions. However, with urbanization dramatically speeding up, tradition suddenly disappearing, the green funeral does not seem to resolve all problems. Actually, if one can have a look at the countryside, the residents are not against the green funeral and burial but instead burial reforms results make some people feel that the green funeral is “dying without the buried body underground”. Therefore, this is not simply a question of public awareness but that of fairness.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



In terms of economic costs

Here we need to consider costs,in some areas, peasants feel that the cost of cremation is higher than that of burial, so it seems more cost-effective choosing burial, which at the same time is in line with the "rest in peace" tradition. Even if government officially forbids burial, but as long as some money is given to local cadres, the latter would not oppose it. Moreover, on the long run, this might evolve into a "demonstration effect" , cremation will basically not be carried out.
Translated by Jennifer Yip

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Everbody can realise that when a celebrity or cadre dies, they are usually buried in their homeland, but also in accordance to feng shui, and know the construction of a very large and beautiful memorial cemetery. Are the contry's laws effective when faced with such behaviours?

Translated by Jennifer Yip

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Agreed! I would choose likewise.

Were I to die, I would definitely choose a "green" burial.
Translated by Afra Tucker

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Environmental Protection and the Economy

I like ecological funerals both for environmental protection and the economy. Speaking from a perspective informed by the laws of nature, life is very cyclical. From nature are people born, from nature do people absorb the nourishment they need to grow, and of course, to nature do people return after they die. Earth burials are okay, and so are cremations. Both involve taking a dead body or its ashes and placing them in a narrow space, keeping them separate from nature. I just think ecological burials are better! The dead return to mother nature's embrace, providing nourishment to a patch of natural environment. When a person dies, they're no longer on this earth (perhaps they go to another world, but they certainly don't remain here), so why spend money, effort, and land on building a funerary garden? It's just that there are living people to focus on, that's all. Actually, in my opinion, compared with an ice-cold coffin or a narrow funerary casket, eternal rest below the flowers and trees, or in the flowing water, would be much better, more beautiful, and much more comfortable. What could you have against that? It's a pity that most Chinese people will probably reject this method of burial. Many people, and especially farmers, people with little education, and people who are uncultured, they accept the many restrictions of traditional thought. It's hard for them to widen their perspective and accept new things and new thoughts. In fact, this isn't only a problem when it comes to funerals and burial. It's a general issue. If we want to promote national thought and progress, we still have a long road ahead of us. Monica (Translated by Jerry Stewart)