During last week’s Qingming Festival, people around the country mobilized to visit the graves of loved ones and pay their respects – and to pay their bills.
China’s funerary services are becoming incredibly expensive as fancy flowers, urns and memorial halls get rolled into packages and pushed on grieving survivors by funerary agencies.
Preying on Grief
When Qin, a woman from Shenzhen, Guangdong province, lost her husband in March, her first stop was a local funeral parlor affiliated with the Shenzhen Funeral Management Center.
On her way in she was stopped by someone who identified himself as a representative of the center and pressured to sign for a funeral service package. The sheet included many free and essential services such as such as body pickup, cremation and hall booking, and a “basic” package that included an urn and flowers
Based on the number of people Qin said she expected to attend the memorial service, the representative sold her a package priced 50,000 yuan. Like most grieving customers, Qin paid the money without asking questions.
Reporters from Ycwb.com went to the funeral parlor posing as customers and were also met by uniformed representatives outside the building. When asked why they were working outside, the representatives said it was because the office was being remodeled. They sold the reporters a 10,000 yuan package and a 19,800 yuan “train service.”
After concluding the agreement, the reporters learned the representatives were actually from a company called Shenzhen Jing’an Ceremonial Service, which assigned its agents to to post as funeral parlor employees and help the parlors to round up customers in exchange for a cut of the sale.
Wanfutang is another company located right in front of a funeral parlor. Its flowers cost 260 yuan – twice the going rate. Its employees also identify themselves as funeral parlor staff.
When reporters took the service sheet to the Shenzhen Funeral Management Center to ask about pricing, they were told the 19,800 yuan “train service” only cost 1,000 yuan.
China opened the funeral service market to private capital in 2004, and many service companies began producing items for funerary use. Free of regulation, prices have grown out of control and the industry has taken advantage of grief.
Shenzhen released a notice that it would stop collecting basic funeral services fees in 2012. Every year, the government absorbs more than million yuan in funeral costs. It is developing a free shuttle bus to fetch customers, and plans to provide brochures for official services on the bus.
Hunan province took a similar initiative in March. Funeral service fees will be managed and advised by the Hunan government and the market.
Body pickup, cremation, refrigeration and ash storage are basic service that will have prices fixed by the government. Mortuary makeup and preparation, hall rental, caskets, urns and graves will be priced in accordance with government guidelines. Other funerary items and service fees will be decided by the market.
Beijing Babaoshan is also reducing its funeral fees this year. A spokesperson for Babaoshan Funeral Parlor said it would reduce the price of funerary items, urns and flowers by 10 to 15 percent this year.
But beyond hidden fees and predatory agencies, China’s death industry faces a bigger problem: a shortage of graves.
A regulation released in 1992 by the Ministry of Civil Affairs required that caskets and urns can be stored in a cemetery for no more than 20 years, and customers must pay for renewal.
Currently only Beijing and the provinces of Yunnan and Shandong have regulations on grave renewal. The renewal cycle and price vary.
But industry reports from 2012 and 2013 show that grave space in most Chinese cities is almost gone.
Shanghai was the first city to offer family graves, with two-level mini-tombs that offer four spaces for urn storage.
Beijing said it is planning to shorten the limit cycle for graves according to the funeral industry plan for 2016 to 2020.
Qiao Kuanyuan, a spokesperson for the China Funeral Association, said payment cycles have to reconcile both the shortage of land and survivors’ ability to pay.
Li Shuyao at Huilonggang Graveyard said his cemetery has many graves whose payment has lapsed. They are not being removed to avoid conflicts with families – at least until the government issues a clear policy.
The funeral industry has also started moving into the world of online services.
“Enxue Angel started in 2013 as an e-commerce company that sold funerary items online. Another company Fushouyuan sells graves online,” said Chen Ping, designer of iu95522.com, an online platform that provides funeral services.
Iu95522.com is a one-stop platform that provides funeral and grave consulting, farewell recordings for people who will not live long and a family commemoration room and online ceremony.
But Chen said the online funeral service industry will be slow to grown – no matter how costly the traditional death industry becomes. China’s conservative attitudes will take many decades to change, he said.