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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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