Ashes in biodegradable urns placed underground become part of new life
A cemetery in Shanxi province is leading the way in the nationwide drive to make funerals more frugal and green.
Ahead of Tomb Sweeping Day, an occasion for worshipping ancestors that fell on Saturday this year, the cemetery promoted free non-traditional "tree funerals".
In these special funerals, chosen by 22 families at Xianjuyuan Cemetery in Taiyuan, the ashes of a cremated loved one are placed under a tree in a biodegradable urn.
The container and its contents will eventually become part of the soil nourishing the tree.
One woman left an urn containing her father's ashes next to the roots of a cypress tree in the cemetery.
"If my father were still alive, he would be 97, which is coincidentally the serial number given to this cypress. In some way, the tree is like his incarnation," she said.
As the drive to combat extravagance - launched by the government in 2012 - intensifies nationwide, people have curbed their spending on family funerals, traditionally viewed as a measurement of filial piety but also of wealth and social standing.
Xianjuyuan Cemetery views the tree funerals as a good way to show condolences while saving money.
"This is somewhat different from the traditional way of holding funerals in China, where ashes are usually preserved permanently," said Wang Haiyan, the cemetery's marketing manager, who began publicizing the tree funerals in late March.
"We received many calls asking about the details," said Wang, explaining that urns will degrade and become part of the soil in three to six months in a humid environment.
Chinese attach great importance to funerals. The growth of the economy in recent decades has also led to more luxurious versions, which can place a significant financial burden on the bereaved.
Wang said a tree funeral normally costs 1,000 yuan ($160), while the cost of a more conventional one in Taiyuan can range from 20,000 to 80,000 yuan.
"The cost is a burden for some families, so tree funerals are a more economical option for them. It's also much better for the environment," she said.
Wang's views were shared by another local resident who was at the cemetery to bury her younger brother's remains. She said a normal funeral was too expensive for her. "If the ashes of my brother can grow into a tree, it will be like a continuation of his life," she said.
The cemetery plans to offer free tree funerals again on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar to mark the Ghost Festival, another occasion for Chinese to mourn the dead. Ghost Festival falls on Aug 10 this year.
The scheme has won widespread official support.
Guo Yonghong, head of Taiyuan's funeral administrative centre, said, "We hope the tree funeral promotion can be a breakthrough in our work to promote green funerals."
According to Guo, Chinese funerals in recent years have involved the scattering of ashes in gardens and at sea.
However, authorities have found it difficult to promote green methods to commemorate the dead in the face of an overwhelming preference for more traditional ceremonies.
More than 10,000 bodies are cremated in Taiyuan every year. However, since the late 1990s, only 3,000 green funerals have been adopted, including Xianjuyuan Cemetery's tree funerals or those at sea.
"Even among those families who agree to green funerals, some insist on wrapping the urn in a plastic box to stop it decaying. This is contrary to our intentions," Guo said.
"It takes time for the public to embrace a new tradition like green and simple funerals, and we plan to draft more polices to promote the drive," she said.