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Chinese embrace eco-burials

Xinhua | Updated: 2013-04-02 13:34

BEIJING - Chinese traditionally believe that souls may rest in peace only if their bodies properly buried underground in coffins. But today, many are becoming open to other options, like scattering ashes in the sea or inlaying funeral urns in walls.

Ahead of this year's Tomb-Sweeping Day, a holiday that falls on April 4, a citizen surnamed Huang in East China's city of Nanjing went to a cemetery to commemorate her deceased father by burning paper in front of an osmanthus tree, the same tree under which his ashes were buried.

Tomb-Sweeping Day, also known as the Qingming Festival, calls for surviving relatives to tend to the graves of their loved ones by leaving food and liquor at their burial sites, as well as by burning fake money as a form of offering.

Huang's father has no tomb, as he requested on his deathbed that his ashes be scattered under a tree. "We respected his will," Huang said.

Hu Jing, one of the cemetery's caretakers, said about 13,000 people have had their ashes scattered in the cemetery, accounting for 20 percent of its occupancy.

Other environmentally friendly methods of burial are gaining popularity, especially in developed coastal regions.

Huang said both of her grandparents chose to have their ashes scattered in the Yangtze River. She said she will likely request the same.

Municipal civil affairs official Huang Juan said more than 140 people had their ashes scattered in local rivers last year, a record high.

So far this year, 31 people in the city of Suzhou in East China's Jiangsu province have requested sea burials, almost triple the number of people who made the same request over the whole of last year.

"An eco-friendly burial shows respect for the departed without compromising the natural environment," said Sun Shuren, an associate professor with the Funeral and Burial Department of the Beijing Social Administration Vocational College.

Sun attributed the changes in burial practices to a decrease in available land and resulting rises in burial costs.

Government efforts to advocate and subsidize eco-burials have also played a part, Sun added.

Starting from last October, any citizen with a hukou, or urban household registration, in downtown Suzhou can receive a subsidy of 2,000 yuan ($322) for choosing a sea or tree burial. The city also offers 1,000 yuan for those who choose to have their ashes buried in parterres or in urns inlaid in walls.

Residents with urban household registration in the city of Shaoxing in East China's Zhejiang province will be given a 5,000-yuan subsidy for choosing sea burials.

Non-traditional burial practices may become even more popular following a Ministry of Civil Affairs guideline released last December that encourages local governments to roll out policies to subsidize eco-friendly burials.

As promising as eco-burials are, a long and difficult battle remains to be fought against the ingrained Chinese convention of honoring the dead with a conventional coffin and tombstone, Sun noted.

Only 10 percent of Nanjing's dead are buried in a non-conventional manner each year, Huang said.

"Eco-burials are an inevitable trend, but further efforts are needed," Huang said.

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