China's funeral industry accused of robbing the living to bury the dead

09:48, April 05, 2010      

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With China's traditional holiday for honoring the dead falling on Monday, throngs of people jostle along the 2-km road in Liudaokou village, Tianjin Municipality, where more than 100 wholesale funeral supply shops compete for business.

"This urn is 170 yuan (24.9 U.S. dollars) wholesale, 1,000 yuan retail here. A retailer can sell it for 5,000 yuan in the city," says saleswoman Li Na, pointing at a plain red wood urn inscribed with two Chinese characters "bai fu", or a hundred blessings.

"It's easy money," says Li. "Take urns for example, no one wants to bargain for a container of his father, mother or whoever's ashes."

In a country where about 10 million people die every year, the funeral industry market is worth tens of billions yuan, says Hao Maishou, a researcher with Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.

However, a lack of market standards and management is allowing unscrupulous business people to monopolize areas of the industry and exploit people's grief, Hao adds.


In another shop, tags claim that the urns, priced from 200 to 600 yuan, are made of rare and precious ebony or redwood, a claim that invites questions.

Li says, "Of course they are not made of ebony or redwood, or they would not be so inexpensive, but if the urns were finely made and tagged with high prices, customers wouldn't doubt it."

Wang Na, owner of Lingzhitang funeral supply shop, teaches a novice retailer to sell a 200-yuan urn for 5,000 yuan. "Say it's ebony, rosewood, redwood or whatever precious material and quote high. Customers like premium urns. They won't buy cheap ones."

Elaborate funeral remains a traditional culture of the Chinese, as nobody wants to be regarded as stingy or unfilial on funeral issues, especially for deceased family members, says a Tianjin businessman involved in funeral service, who only identifies himself as Liu.

"As long as you understand and utilize such a feeling, you are guaranteed to make a pile," Liu says.

At an urban Tianjin funeral home, a government-run facility that provides cremation and funeral services, an "ebony" urn bearing the traditional painting, Riverside Scene on Tomb-sweeping Day, sells for 12,800 yuan while the same urn costs only 1,100 yuan in Liudaokou.

A plain-looking urn inscribed "Always remembered" in Chinese characters is priced at 10,000 yuan. Urns of the same inscription, materials and shape sell for 180 yuan in Liudaokou.

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