Chinese going online for tomb sweeping

Virtual memorials to loved ones on rise in wake of pandemic lockdowns

By LI LEI | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-05 08:58
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Volunteers distribute flowers as they promote a more modern and civilized tomb sweeping in Hefei, Anhui province, on March 26. GE CHUANHONG/FOR CHINA DAILY

From desktop to phone

Gurenju is the brainchild of Wu Bingyang, a self-taught programmer from Hubei province. Wu, now CEO of Nantong Gurenju Info Tech Co, first launched the service to remember his father, who died of uremia in 2006 at age 52.

"I was deeply sorry about his death, so I came up with the idea to remember him on the internet," said the 44-year-old.

At the time, there already existed several websites dedicated to remembering the deceased, but none satisfied Wu.

What most vexed Wu was that all such websites required users to create an account using a phone number or email address, and each time he wanted to mourn his father, he had to log in with a password. Other people who wished to show their respect at old Wu's virtual memorial also had to first create an account themselves.

He believes the trouble involved goes against the purpose of letting the digital memories pass down through generations, and creates roadblocks for more distant relatives to mourn. "Passwords are easy to forget," he said.

Therefore, Wu stripped the registration process on Gurenju, and instead resorted to an application-verification-display procedure, in which families file applications with the personal data of the deceased, which after being verified by Gurenju employees, would be displayed in one of its virtual memorials.

Applicants would in return receive a code made up of a string of letters. To visit the mourning place, visitors only need to search for the code or the names of their loved ones.

Gurenju was among the first mourning websites to go mobile in 2019, getting ahead of the competition.

"Shortly after we launched the service on WeChat, the COVID-19 outbreak started," Wu said.

The pandemic and the disruptions it induced in the real world, together with the convenience brought by Wu's mobile strategy, had brightened the prospect of Wu's virtual memorial project.

He said before the pandemic, virtual memorials were such a niche product that, despite painstaking efforts to promote their websites at brick-and-mortar funeral parlors, they only had 5,000 users by the end of 2019.

Now they have more than 650,000 users, of which 85 percent were accrued between 2020 and last year.

Wu said online memorials such as Gurenju had made tomb sweeping possible anytime, providing a boon to hundreds of millions of out-of-towners, but he doubts it will replace in-person mourning. "Virtual memorial is tantalizing when in-person tomb sweeping is hard to achieve. But whenever possible, I believe most people would choose to mourn on site."

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