Now and then: Changing funeral trends

Now and then: Changing funeral trends
During "Qingming" Chinese traditionally tend the graves of their departed loved ones and often burn paper money, model houses, cars, mobile phones and other goods as offerings to honour them and keep them comfortable in the afterlife.

Then: Old Rituals

In Chinese tradition, a funeral is a complicated and solemn rite. People made preparations for the afterlife in advance, choosing a site for their burial and preparing a coffin and burial clothes. Emperors would spend decades building mausoleums for themselves at tremendous cost.

Since cremation is uncommon, burial is taken seriously in Chinese society. Improper funeral arrangements can wreak ill fortune and disaster on the family of the departed. To a degree, funeral rites and burial customs are determined by the age of the deceased, cause of death, position in society and marital status.

Rites for an elder must follow a prescribed form befitting a person's status and age and must be carried out even if it means the family goes into debt.

Preparations often begin before death has occurred. When a person is on his/her death bed, a coffin will often have already been ordered from an undertaker who oversees all funeral rites.

Now: A sea change

More Chinese families are opting to bury their loved ones at sea because of an increase in local government subsidies and services for the practice.

In cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, governments offer free sea burials or cash subsidies to families. When sea burial was initiated in the 1990s, few were willing to let go of the remains of their dead but there were more than 1,200 such funerals last year.

In order to encourage sea burials, authorities in charge of Beijing funerals have doubled the grant from 2,000 yuan (S$440 dollars) to 4,000 yuan.

Tradition holds that the dead should be buried in earth beside their ancestors, and people visit family tombs on Tomb Sweeping Day.

But a shortage of arable land and other factors led the government to promote more eco-friendly burials and the new policy will allow up to six family members to participate in the ceremony at sea for free. Previously, only two were allowed.

Like the Chinese expression: "A falling leaf returns to its roots," Chinese people have traditionally wished to be buried in their hometown, no matter how much trouble it may cause. But while more Chinese are opting to bury their loved ones at sea it doesn't necessarily follow that people would take a step much further - space funerals.

A Beijing undertaker is offering China's first space burial service, with the cheapest package starting at 5,600 yuan.

The most expensive, at 75,000 yuan, will "launch the ashes on a voyage through deepest space on a permanent celestial journey."

Although the cheapest deal costs no more than the popular iPhone 6S, Biian has not had a single client since being authorised two years ago by Celestis Inc. which introduced memorial spaceflights in 1997.

Xu Yi, one of the founders of Biian - which literally means "the other shore" - said many enquiries came from retirees who formerly worked in the aeronautical and space technology industries, "who wish to rest in space", but that no firm reservations have been made.

He thinks opposition from family members made the pensioners give up on the idea. "Chinese traditionally want to keep the ashes and not be separated from them," Xu said.

People with traditional thoughts usually reject the idea of giving up the ashes of their loved ones but this has inspired some innovative companies which turn ashes into diamonds.

Since October last year, Biian has tailor-made more than 100 diamonds from ashes. Xu Yi said his company has even had enquiries from college students. "They called to ask about the price and procedure," Xu explained.

"They were not asking for their family, but for themselves," he said. "It might be too early to talk about issues after death, but it shows the changing attitudes among young people."

Although iPhone7 and Samsung Galaxy Note6 have not been launched yet, their paper models are already available in Guangzhou for the deceased.

A package of Apple's products, including an iPad, iPhone6S, earphones and a charger, sells for 10 yuan at a store that specializes on offerings for the deceased on Chaoxing Street in Guangzhou.

Wireless services are provided by "Underworld Communications Corp".

Huang, a store owner on Guangxiao Road in Guangzhou, is seeing robust sales of new products, often favoured more by younger customers.

Older buyers prefer the more traditional incense and candles, she said, adding each of her customers is spending about 200 yuan on average.

Despite new trends there are still some who believe a decent and expensive cemetery is a necessity. Otherwise, they would probably be regarded as unfilial.

A woman has had to move three times in the past six years to avoid neighbours' harsh words because she agreed to her parents' bodies being used for organ donations, even though her parents' had willed it.

"Neighbors and relatives asked me if I didn't have enough money to afford a decent burial for my father," Zhou Wenting said, adding that some even asked her to "return the body".

For ages, death has been a taboo subject in Chinese culture and education. Parents barely talk about it, school curriculums provide rare discussion of it.

Xu Yi, the co-founder of Biian, has long wanted to make some revolutionary design changes to shrouds, which traditionally clothe dead bodies.

He told China Daily that no fashion designers have so far agreed to become involved .

"One designer said: 'If you got famous (from the new design of shrouds), I would die (meaning the designer would not get any work in the design field)'," Xi sighed.

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