Expats who die in China ring up a hefty tab

Expats who die in China ring up a hefty tab

Death is an inevitable part of life that touches everyone at one time or another. But the thought of it is something most people try to avoid.

For expats, the possibility of death overseas might be a touchy matter, but the uncomfortable question is unavoidable: What happens to the remains if a person dies in China?

Usually, family members handle the paperwork and other formalities in the process of bringing a departed loved one back home. Help is available through companies in China that specialise in the repatriation of deceased expatriates.

One such enterprise is Roseates, a Beijing-based body repatriation service. The company has assisted in the transport of an average of 150 individuals annually back to their countries of origin.

According to China's National Funeral Association, which set up a nationwide network for international body repatriation, about 1,800 bodies are shipped out of China every year.

"The main causes of foreigners' deaths here are heart attacks and respiratory problems," said Belgium-born Wilfried Verbruggen, who founded Roseates in 2007.

But Verbruggen said the job over the past eight years has not been easy. Under current regulations, the company can only operate as a mediator.

"We depend on a certain number of licensed funeral homes, which are appointed by China's National Funeral Association, to take care of the main procedures," he said, adding that these tasks include the embalming and storage of the body.

Under international law, the normal process of repatriation begins once a body is discovered and reported to an embassy, which then contacts the next of kin.

To transport the body, preservation is required first, Verbruggen said. Then, a translated death certificate and a quarantine certificate are obtained, and the company provides a coffin. Once the paperwork is done, a flight is arranged to transport the remains.

"Roseates has a fixed fee of 7,500 yuan (S$1648.10) for our services, but total costs of the repatriation can climb to an average of 80,000 yuan due to the costs imposed by the local funeral homes," Verbruggen said.

China's funerary industry is State-controlled and offers fixed prices for Chinese nationals. But when it comes to assisting foreigners, fees can increase significantly.

For example, the official price for embalming in China is 300 yuan. But foreigners pay an average of 8,000. For body storage, the average Chinese tariff is around 3 to 4 yuan per hour, but for foreigners it can jump to 20 yuan, he said.

In Shanghai, two funeral businesses, Longhua Funeral Parlor and Baoxing Funeral Parlor, offer a package of services, including embalming, finding a coffin and helping with the quarantine inspection.

Foreigners also face restrictions on burial in China. In 2008, the Ministry of Civil Affairs released a regulation on the management of foreigners' funerals and interment that largely banned their being buried in China.

In the case of cremation, some provinces and regions allow ashes to be buried.

For example, Shanghai Wanguo Cemetery takes applications if the deceased foreigners have made "exceptional contributions" to Chinese society, but the application needs to get municipal government approvals.

Wang Zhenghua in Shanghai contributed to this story.

emmagonzalez@chinadaily.com.cn

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