China / Society

Burial traditions run deep in Anhui

By Zhu Lixin and Ma Chenguang in Hefei (China Daily) Updated: 2016-04-07 08:12

A 73-year-old tomb site chooser advocates use of public cemeteries

Unlike public cemeteries in the suburbs of big cities, burial grounds in rural areas can be small and scattered across the landscape. Usually, each belongs to just one family.

"There are always reasons why the tombs are on their current sites and why they should be arranged in a certain order," said Yuan Zhongnian, a 73-year-old who has helped rural residents in Hefei, the capital of Anhui province, locate appropriate tomb sites since the late 1980s.

Though Gaoliu township, where Yuan lives, became a part of the Hefei Economic and Technological Development Area in 2013, traditional burial customs are still very popular.

To outsiders, the tombs might look like nothing more than piles of earth, but to Yuan they are much more and must be arranged carefully using the principles of feng shui - the ancient Chinese philosophical system focused on harmony and balance that literally translates as "wind-water".

"A tomb that enjoys good feng shui should mostly have water in front of it, but at least 100 steps or about 67 meters away, and higher ground at the back. Also, the left and right sides of the ground in front should be balanced," said Yuan, adding that the deceased's head should always be placed at the tomb's higher end.

These principles are aimed at allowing chi, or life force, to flow through the tomb, he said.

Yuan, who refers to himself as a geomancer, said the direction the corpse is facing is also important, and varies from year to year. "This year, burial chambers should avoid facing north to south," he said.

Prior to the 1960s, it was common in Anhui for the deceased to be stored in temporary shelters for two to three years before their final burial.

This tradition has largely been abandoned in most parts of the province, except by residents in the mountainous Anqing city.

The skill of geomancy, however, is still very much alive and is customarily passed down from father to son. Yuan bucked this trend by starting with a distance-learning course in 1987 before being apprenticed to a senior master in Gaoliu township. "Geomancers are not allowed to shift from one master to another," he said.

For his services, Yuan is usually paid between 200 and 400 yuan ($30.74 to $61.48), although this amount can vary depending on the family of the deceased.

As most funerals are held in the morning, Yuan has to arrive at the home of the deceased early, before going to the burial ground. After choosing the tomb site, he then has to stay until the funeral is completed, as his advice may still be required.

At the start of his career, Yuan would choose tombs for around 40 to 60 deceased people annually, but this has now risen to up to 130 a year.

This is because most of the local residents who migrate to the city for work still choose to be buried in their family's private burial grounds, Yuan said.

Even after a relative has been cremated, their families often choose to place the remains in their private tombs.

Official data show that the number of Anhui residents aged 60 and older had increased to about 10.31 million, or 17 percent of the province's population, by the end of 2014.

"Those deceased aged under 60 should be buried the next day after their death, while for those older than 60, their bodies, inside coffins, will often be placed in their homes until the third day," Yuan said.

Although his services are still much in demand, Yuan advocates burials in public cemeteries in order to save more land for future generations.

He also worries that the rapid pace of expansion in the Hefei Economic and Technological Development Area, which now governs Gaoliu, will see more tombs in the countryside demolished and relocated.

Hot Topics