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Out­cry as coffins crushed in Chi­nese ‘zero-bur­ial’ cam­paign

Videos cir­cu­late show­ing vil­lagers in Jiangxi province cry­ing as coffins are removed

A woman dec­o­rates a grave at a ceme­tery in Shang­hai. Pho­to­graph: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Offi­cials in south-east Chi­na have been ordered to mod­er­ate their enforce­ment of a “zero-bur­ial” pol­i­cy after videos cir­cu­lat­ed of elder­ly vil­lagers weep­ing as coffins were dragged from their homes and destroyed.

Jiangxi province has called for large-scale funer­al reform, includ­ing phas­ing out tra­di­tion­al ground buri­als by 1 Sep­tem­ber and replac­ing them with cre­ma­tion as a way to save space.

In rur­al Chi­na, fam­i­lies can save for years to buy high-qual­i­ty, hand­craft­ed coffins for their loved ones. The coffins are often stored at home where they are believed to bring good luck and longevi­ty.

Videos and pho­tos of offi­cials in Jiangxi forcibly remov­ing coffins from the homes of dis­traught res­i­dents, most of them elder­ly, have prompt­ed con­dem­na­tion from across the coun­try.

Vil­lagers appar­ent­ly tried to stop the offi­cials by lying in the coffins. Pho­tos show piles of coffins lined up on a road wait­ing to be crushed by exca­va­tors. In one video, offi­cials appear to pull a corpse from a cof­fin as bystanders kneel on the ground cry­ing.

On Wednes­day Jiangxi’s depart­ment of civ­il affairs issued a notice say­ing a num­ber of coun­ty-lev­el offi­cials had tak­en “sim­plis­tic and extreme” actions that had “hurt the feel­ings” of local res­i­dents.

It called on offi­cials to take a stead­ier, slow­er approach, and to “respect the dead, con­sole the liv­ing and pro­vide ser­vices to the pub­lic.”

For decades, author­i­ties have been try­ing var­i­ous ways of con­vinc­ing res­i­dents to move away from ground buri­als. Mao Zedong called tra­di­tion­al funer­al tra­di­tions a “feu­dal super­sti­tion” and in 1956 called for mak­ing cre­ma­tion the main means of deal­ing with the dead.

But the pol­i­cy nev­er stuck. Mao him­self was embalmed, his body kept in a mau­soleum in cen­tral Bei­jing. To deal with over­crowd­ed ceme­ter­ies, local gov­ern­ments have been try­ing to pro­mote cre­ma­tion, sea buri­als,tree buri­als and ver­ti­cal buri­als.

Gov­ern­ment efforts to pro­mote cre­ma­tion over buri­als have had dis­as­trous results before. In 2014, when Anhui province set a dead­line for the use of cre­ma­tion over buri­als, six elder­ly res­i­dents killed them­selves before the date.

On Tues­day the People’s Dai­ly said Jiangxi’s enforce­ment of funer­al reform was “cold-blood­ed and over­bear­ing” and rude. It cau­tioned against “cam­paign-style” reforms done at all at once – phras­es that recall pre­vi­ous dis­as­trous cam­paigns such as the Great Leap For­ward in the late 1950s, a rur­al reform pro­gramme that led to large-scale famine.

Oth­ers have defend­ed tra­di­tion­al funer­al rites, more com­mon in rur­al Chi­na. “Chi­nese tra­di­tion­al cul­ture is ances­tor wor­ship. Ances­tors and their descen­dants form a com­mu­ni­ty of mutu­al ben­e­fit,” wrote Zou Zhen­dong, a his­to­ri­an and tutor at Xia­men Uni­ver­si­ty, refer­ring to cus­toms where fam­i­lies hon­our their ances­tors in exchange for bless­ings.

Despite the crit­i­cism, Jiangxi province is con­tin­u­ing with its funer­al reforms. Res­i­dents have been asked to give up their coffins vol­un­tar­i­ly and should receive 2,000 yuan (about £230) in com­pen­sa­tion. As of last month, more than 5,800 coffins from 24 vil­lages or town­ships had been col­lect­ed, accord­ing to local media.

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