Rose beside the coffin -- Female embalmer in Beijing dignifies the deceased

10:02, April 04, 2011      

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It is surprising that 22-year old Yang Weiwei, a woman who often smiles and loves dolls, regularly deals with corpses.

Yang, whose name means rose in Chinese, has been working at Babaoshan Cemetery in western Beijing for the past year and is the only female embalmer at the cemetery.

Embalmers are mainly responsible for cleaning, putting make-up on and embalming bodies before cremation. Their work can be as easy as washing faces and shaving or as hard as restoring a shapeless body using stitches and glue.

At their "office," Yang showed Xinhua reporters the brushes, combs, hair gels, fake eyelashes, and plasters used to fill in missing body parts. Among the tools and cosmetic products, she took out a rabbit doll and waved to reporters.

"I put it here to ease the tension," she smiled.

Yang is the only person majoring in funeral service in the five-member team at Babaoshan.

Yang studied in college under the Ministry of Civil Affairs in 2007 and was accepted into a one-year training program in funeral services during her junior year.

"I think it's a 'rare' major and it's easier to find a job," she said..

Traditional Chinese beliefs consider death and corpses as very inauspicious. People avoid meeting those who work in funeral services and even avoid saying words like "die." Therefore, embalmers often encounter embarrassed acquaintances.

In the 1980s, since no one wanted to enter the industry, embalmers could retire only after their sons took their place. In the 1990s, embalmers could only marry women in the same field because women quickly lost interest when hearing about their occupation.

In recent years, with development in people's lives and a change in attitude, people started spending more on funerals and embalmers have been more in demand and increasingly accepted. In 2009, the Japanese movie "Departures," an Oscar-winner that depicts the life of an unemployed cellist who became an embalmer, also brought more understanding and respect for embalmers.

However, when Yang graduated and was hired by Babaoshan Cemetery as an embalmer in 2010, her mother still strongly disagreed.

"She said I wouldn't find a boyfriend if I took this job," Yang said. "Luckily, I've already got one. He's very supportive of my job."

Yang managed to convince her mother and started her job in Babaoshan. However, her work was not easy in the beginning since it took time for her to control her emotions, such as feeling sorrowful and fearful.

"In the first half month I cried along with the families of the deceased," she said. "As for fear, when I was shaving a body for the first time, I accidentally touched his teeth. I screamed because I thought he bit me," she laughed.

Things turned better after she saw more corpses. Sometimes, she might see more than 30 corpses in a single day.

According to her master, they have done a good job when the body only appears to be sleeping. All they were doing as embalmers, she noted, was just helping the dead "leave with dignity."

"Serve the dead, and comfort the living," she was told.

Yang's master, 51-year-old Liu Rui'an, is considered China's No. 1 embalmer because he has dealt with 200,000 bodies over the past 30 years, which includes the remains of top Chinese leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Yang Shangkun.

Liu said Yang was recruited because it is more convenient when she deals with female bodies.

"Some families require a woman for the cleaning and the make-up. Also, she's more talented in cosmetics," he said.

According to Liu, there are about 20 embalmers for all the cemeteries in Beijing. Yang is the only female embalmer.

"I knew two girls who used to do this, but they had taken other jobs," she said.

Yang, however, said that she would continue to do her job and that she is proud of her occupation.

"Not everyone can make it," she said. "I'm so proud when families acknowledge my work and say 'thank you'."

Source: Xinhua

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