Some 1,200 kilometers away from home, homesickness is a constant weight on the shoulders of Yi Xin (pseudonym). The 17-year-old girl calls home every night to check on her 70-year-old grandmother, with her concerns amplified by recent news claiming senior citizens committed suicide to beat a ban on burials and avoid being cremated.
Six senior citizens, aged between 68 and 91 in Anqing, East China's Anhui Province, have killed themselves since late April, the Beijing News reported.
"I began to hear about such suicides when I went back home in mid May and it was what all those older people talked about: How they dislike the idea of being burned after death and how they fear their coffins would be torn apart," Yi told the Global Times. "I don't know anyone who actually killed themselves and I hope my grandmother would never do that."
All this anxiety allegedly comes from a new rule on funeral and interment reform in Anqing issued by the local government of Anqing on March 25. Under the new rule, which comes into effect on June 1, all corpses are required to be cremated rather than buried.
"For generations, we have buried our ancestors in the woods up in the hills. It must be hard for the elderly to accept the idea of having their corpses burned," Yi said, adding that her grandmother is also against the rule.
Despite the concerns, local authorities have vowed to carry out the reform, while experts urged the local government not to stress the public with any one-size-fits-it-all reform policy that would affect traditions that have built up over centuries.
Wishes for a 'good' death
Pan Xiuying has tried to kill herself with pesticide four times since April 20. The 88-year-old woman told The Beijing News that officials first tried to seize her coffin, so she committed suicide, and now she was only living on because they had agreed not to take it away.
In order to encourage locals to follow the new rule, the Anqing government offered to provide 1,000 yuan ($160) if they handed in their coffins by the deadline. But some village officials allegedly entered villagers' homes and used force to dismantle the coffins, which was believed to have triggered the suicides.
Zheng Shifang, 83, hanged herself on May 23. Earlier that month, her coffin had reportedly been sawed in half without asking for her opinions. Wu Zhengde, 91, hanged himself on May 6, after he heard about the coffin collection, the Beijing News reported.
Jiang Xiuhua, 81, hanged herself in a tree in her backyard on April 18 when village officials came to register her coffin. "My grandmother has previously said she should be buried in a coffin after it had been made ready for more than 10 years," Jiang's grandson was quoted as saying by the newspaper.
The Anhui Civil Affairs Department said on May 27 that investigations found no connection between the deaths of the elderly and the planned reform, while forced coffin collection remains strictly banned in the region.
Anqing has been pushing forward reforms to funeral and interment practices this year due to an increase in forest fires, after failed reform attempts in 1994 and 2006. Over 20 local officials were punished in January after 16 fires broke out at a forest park, possibly caused by burning incense or lighting firecrackers to honor dead relatives during Spring Festival, media reported.
According to local news portal aqnews.com.cn, the Anqing government aims to boost the cremation rate to 50 percent by the end of 2014 and the percentage is expected to reach 80 percent by 2016.
China began to encourage cremation in the 1950s in order to protect farmland and public hygiene as well as an effort to fight against superstition. Several top State officials, including late premier Zhou Enlai, were cremated.
In 1997, the State Council issued the first official regulations on funeral and interment to promote cremation nationwide. Provincial governments were left to design their own promotion plan and timetable.
However, "good deaths" seems to have forcibly been discouraged several times. Corpses have been dug up to be cremated and over 2 million tombs were removed in Zhoukou, Henan Province, and converted into farmland before the practice was halted in 2012.
"Chinese people value death as life itself. It is not an end, rather, a new beginning. People treat the ancestors who passed away as if they were still alive, which explains the concept of a burial of a complete body in a coffin and burning money and clothes made of paper," said Yao Zhongqiu, a professor at Beihang University, and a Confucian scholar.
Yao told the Global Times that Han people in particular have faith in the concept of "earth," which also explains the traditional practice of burials. As one initiator of the open letter to Henan Province to stop the tomb removal, he sent a petition letter to the inspection team of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to Anhui on Tuesday, criticizing the "brutal" reform measures in Anhui.
"The traditional way of living should be preserved. People's attitude toward life and death must be respected," Yao noted.
This was echoed by Yuan Gang, a professor with the School of Government at Peking University. Yuan noted that local officials must take into consideration the old-fashioned but deep-rooted ideas of burials among the elderly.
"More persuasive efforts are needed and they should spend more time communicating with elderly people. Flexibility is also needed. For example, those who resist cremation too much may be permitted to be buried in a coffin, but they can be asked to dig deeper so as not to affect agriculture," Yuan said.
A local resident surnamed Hao said that she was among the residents that local officials visited and tried to persuade. "I have heard about the forced collections. Luckily, it didn't happen to my family. My grandparents are in their 80s. Their coffins were made at least 15 years ago. A coffin purchases is like a house purchase to them and meas a lot," she said. But in the end, her grandparents agreed to give up their coffins.
Yuan also warned that local civil affairs authorities must work to guarantee a cheap price or even free purchases of cremation services at cemeteries in order to streamline the process.