Photographers' Blog

China’s sea burials

May 15, 2014

Shanghai, China

By Carlos Barria

Before Li Zhenxuan died at the age of 101, the former chief officer of a riverboat told his son he wanted to be buried at sea with his mother, who passed away in 1965, and his wife, who died in 1995.

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

On a rainy Saturday this month, his son released three bags of ashes into the wind and sea from a boat near the mouth of the Yangtze River, and Li’s final wish was granted. Faced with a growing population, soaring property prices and increasingly scarce land resources, the Chinese government has been trying for years to convince more people to break with tradition and bury loved ones at sea, like Li. The practice has been slow to catch on. Many older Chinese oppose cremation and prefer to be buried beside ancestors, according to tradition, ideally on a verdant hillside with the proper ‘feng shui’.

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Attitudes are changing as China’s urban population expands, but still the number of sea burials is a drop in the ocean. For Li, the decision was simple, said his son, who wished to remain anonymous. “He said: ‘I don’t want to leave you trouble’,” his son recalled. The family kept the ashes of his mother and wife in urns at home until he died. “He wanted to set an example, one that future generations would follow.”

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

From 1991, the ashes of more than 28,000 people had been scattered at sea in Shanghai, helping to save 8.3 hectares (20 acres) of land, the China Daily newspaper reported in April. This year, the Shanghai Funeral Services Center from the Civil Affairs Bureau is planning to conduct 33 group burials at sea, 10 more that last year. Each trip to the heavily trafficked confluence of the Yangtze and the Pacific Ocean can accommodate around 250 people on a converted ferryboat. Organizers allow a maximum of six family members to accompany each urn.

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

“Concepts are changing. Land is limited, the population is increasing, and so the capacity of land will be exceeded. This saves resources for the future,” said Yu Yijun, who was scattering the ashes of his deceased grandmother. “Old generations still care about traditions. But young people may no longer think they’re important.”

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

For some, economics are the deciding factor. To promote sea burials, the government gives each family a subsidy of 2,000 yuan ($320). By contrast, the cost of traditional burials in Shanghai, one of China’s most expensive cities, can range from 40,000 yuan ($6,450) to over half a million yuan ($80,000). New urban cemetery land is limited and regulations regarding cemeteries are complex.

There is already a waiting list, with families waiting up to two years for their turn. “The family cemetery is disappearing in China,” said Zhang Yunhua, general manager of FIS, a state-owned funeral service that has linked up with the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau Funeral Service Center to offer sea burials. “People in a family may be buried in seven or eight different places. It’s too hard to take care of all the gravesites. Cemeteries are expensive now and if you don’t keep paying the management fee, no one will take care of the grave, then it will disappear naturally. It’s a waste.”

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

As the ferry returns to port, some people step outside to smoke and watch the gray industrial landscape glide by. In China’s increasingly urban society, many struggle and adapt to keep traditions alive. A passenger surnamed Zhao, who lost his wife and was scattering her ashes, believes sea burials will simplify life on “Tomb Sweeping Day” each spring, a holiday during which Chinese pay respects to deceased family members and ancestors by visiting and attending to their graves. “We can honor the deceased at home… It’s important to keep someone in your mind, but you don’t have to show this to others,” he said. “Children are busy these days. They have a lot of pressure from work. They don’t have time to visit their families’ graves. Honoring them in the home is enough.”

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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