SHANGHAI - As he puts the deceased to rest, Zheng Jixiong also has to put to rest the concerns many people have about burying their loved ones at sea.
"Years ago, my customers wouldn't tell their neighbors about sea burial, as if they had done something disrespectful to their lost family members," said Zheng, who has been working in the burial service industry for nearly three decades.
During that time, the number of families seeking sea burial in Shanghai has increased from about 300 a year in the early 1990s to more than 2,000 a year now.
Zheng, the 60-year-old manager of Shanghai Feisi Sea Burial Company, the only company in the city dedicated to sea burial, described the trend as "a huge step forward" in the acceptance of sea burial because in the past most people considered sprinkling ashes at sea to be like abandoning the deceased.
Chinese had always believed that the deceased can only rest in peace if buried on land.
Zheng recalled the first sea burial the city held 20 years ago, in which Zheng participated.
"We lacked experience at that time. The strong wind at sea blew some of the ashes back to the people on the ship," he recalled.
"Now we have a specially designed funnel with a very long pipe extending to the sea surface to make sure the ashes go directly into the sea."
When the ship nears the sea burial area, a memorial ceremony is held and the family is given chrysanthemum petals to mix with the ashes.
"Twenty years ago, we played funeral music in the ceremony, which made the atmosphere very sad. Now it has been replaced by the song The Sea, My Hometown to express the family's love for the deceased," Zheng said.
He said that some people sprinkle the ashes bit by bit with their own hands and talk to the deceased, while others are scared to touch the ashes and just pour the whole box into the funnel.
"The atmosphere is usually very peaceful," Zheng said. "Only about one-fifth of the people cry at the ceremony, which is very different from the situation in a traditional burial where people usually cry out loud."
Local media have reported that sea burial has helped the city save at least 40,000 square meters of land, but Zheng said the actual number is far larger.
"In a cemetery, only 40 percent of the land is used for tombs, while the other parts are for trees, paths and office areas," he explained.
"Sea burial also relieves the economic burden on the deceased's family, as the price of cemetery plots keeps rising," he added.
The burial costs 150 yuan ($23) per person for each participating relative and friend of the deceased and the municipal government offers a subsidy of 400 yuan for each burial, Zheng said.
However, despite the boom of sea burials, the company has been suffering losses recently, Zheng said, as the fees are not enough to cover expenses.
And the shortage of available boats is bringing him more troubles, as ship companies are reluctant to rent their boats to Zheng as they regard sea burials as inauspicious.
Over the past years, Zheng's company has been relying on two vessels rented from a local ship company -- the only company in the city willing to offer their boats for the purpose.
To make matters worse, one of the vessels needs repairs and the ship company can't afford to maintain it.
"We have to reject or postpone a great number of requests as we can't take them all with only one boat in service," Zheng said.
Despite that, their reservations are full until June 2012.