More subsidies for sea burials

By Cao Li (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-04-03 07:05

SHANGHAI: The city's land shortage has prompted the municipal government to offer a larger subsidy to promote sea burial.

Starting this year, Shanghai doubled its subsidy from 200 yuan ($25.80) to 400 yuan ($51.70) to the family of anyone choosing a sea burial, said Lu Chunling, director of the Shanghai Funeral and Interment Administrative Office under the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau. The subsidy started 16 years ago.

With a booming elderly population and 100,000 deaths each year, Shanghai expects to run out of cemetery land in 10 years, according to Lu.

To tackle the problem, the Shanghai government and cemetery operators have been pushing more land-saving burials such as small-plot burials and sea burials.

However, most people continue to favor spacious tombs.

Statistics show that only 7 percent of the families of the deceased choose land-saving burials. And the percentage of sea burials, though growing steadily, is only 1.6 percent.

Xu Guoxiang, director of the Sea Burial Department under Shanghai Funeral and Interment Administrative Office, said that Shanghai has seen a 10 percent increase in sea burials each year since it began serving them in 1991. And since 2002, the Shanghai government began to offer a 200 yuan subsidy to each sea burial.

In 2000, 815 people were buried at sea and in 2006 the number went up to 1,613 or 1.6 percent of the total deaths in the year.

Group sea burials, in which many families arrange to spread the ashes on the same day, are held several times a year in early April when the Chinese tomb-sweeping day falls. Winter solstice, which falls between December 21-23 in the lunar calendar, is also popular.

Those two days are considered by Chinese as the best time to bury or memorialize the deceased, according to Xu.

A site between Changxing and Hengsha islands on the northeast side of Shanghai is designated by the State Oceanic Administration for the burial.

"Their ashes are going to sink and rest under the sand and mud as Chinese tradition believes that the peace of soul can be found only under mud," Xu said. He also dispelled the concern that the ashes would be swallowed by fish or shrimp.

"At the beginning, most families who came for sea burials were highly educated and more influenced by Western culture. Now, families of all walks of life are coming. Some of them like the idea of being environmentally friendly and some want to save money," he said.

The average price for a burial plot is 20,000 yuan ($2,587). And the cost for a sea burial is only 150 yuan for each person who goes along to spread the ashes.

However, there are also families who rent a boat to spread the ashes, which can cost 35,000 yuan ($4,527).

In 2005, the family of the late Chinese writer Ba Jin spread his remains in the sea, according to his wishes.

"As more open-minded families are choosing to bury their loved ones under the sea, there are still many who hesitate to act against tradition and as a result, the percentage of sea burials is still low," Xu said.

"I've met some who registered for the sea burial and then changed their mind later under the pressure," Xu said.

(China Daily 04/03/2007 page3)

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