The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Policies on interment in China and the back alley transactions that follow suit

3 min read
By ALICE BALDYS As of Monday this week, two government officials in Guangdong Province of Southern China were arrested for buying bodies from a grave robber.
Officials in China have been arrested for buying corpses.
William Cho/Flickr


As of Monday this week, two government officials in Guangdong Province of Southern China were arrested for buying bodies from a grave robber.

The reason the two officials, surnamed He and Dong, of the Guangdong government were in the market for human corpses is because of a government quota for cremations. In an effort to reduce the size of cemeteries and use former burial grounds for civilian development, such as farming, China instated a law that bans the use of traditional burials in favor of cremations.

Chinese leaders including Mao Zedong sparked Funeral Reform back in 1956 by signing a letter committing to be cremated. Traditional beliefs of ancestor worship in China require a tomb burial after death to ensure a peaceful afterlife for deceased family members. In rural communities of Southern China, the cremation mandate has been met with widespread opposition.

Villagers have resorted to burying family members illegally in hidden burial grounds. In 2012, Chinese officials bulldozed nearly two million tombs in Henan province to make room for agricultural land expansion. After public outcry, one million of those tombs were allowed to be rebuilt by villagers.

Sadly, China has continued its cremation reform campaign with authoritarian vigor. News reports from May 2014 attributed a rise in suicide rates to the cremation policy. There are reports of elderly Chinese committing suicide so they could receive proper burial before a government deadline required cremation.

The latest scandal resulted in cooperation between a grave robber, Zhong, and two government officials. According to news reports Zhong stole over twenty bodies from local villages at night and transported them to Guangdong on his motorcycle. There, the two officials paid roughly 3,000-1,500 yuan, or $490-250, per corpse so they could cremate the bodies to meet the quota. To the Western eye and to rural Chinese these actions are an embarrassing violation of the respect due to the deceased.

While it is clear that He and Dong were themselves acting illegally by colluding with a criminal, one must question the underlying principle of the law. Funeral reform has been compared to the one child policy in its difficulty to enforce and its intrusion into private life.

With so much opposition in rural areas, the law encourages widespread evasion rather than compliance. According to one report, counties in rural China have as low as a 20 percent cremation rate. In 2012, the U.S. had a National Cremation rate of 42 percent alone.

Rather than spawning compliance, officials are creating widespread opposition with their aggressive and ruthless tactics of destroying graves. The history of cremation reform in China is tied to the Cultural Revolution during the rise of the Communist Regime. Historian Natacha Aveline proposes that funeral reform was intended to break up family hierarchy and clan influence during the rise of the Communist regime in favor of the nuclear family.

Mandating, rather than incentivizing, cremations and harshly enforcing them is causing unrest in Southern China. The negative media attention, deaths and tremendous trauma and grief it has led to show that a better, less harmful approach should be taken here. No one should have to feel like their loved ones’ resting place has been desecrated in the name of government policy.