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.
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’.
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.”
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.
“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.”