Workers of the Changchun Funeral Home put the ashes of the dead into the sea during a commonweal sea burial in Dalian in northeast China. With prices of graves skyrocketing, the Chinese government is trying to encourage sea burials. Photo: Fang Xinwu / ColorChinaPhoto / AP

By William Wan
3 April 2013

BEIJING (Washington Post) – In this country of almost 1.4 billion people, life is an unending struggle for resources — money, property, even spouses. And it doesn’t get easier in death.

Prices for graves are skyrocketing, driven by decades of unbridled development and scarce city land. The government’s answer to this conundrum: sea burials.

Officials across China are selling hard the option of a watery grave by offering hefty financial incentives and planting stories in state media — with only marginal success. Many local governments, however, have saved their strongest pitches for this week, timing them to the Qingming Festival, when families nationwide take a day off to sweep their ancestors’ graves.

In the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, officials recently announced a $160 bonus for families that scatter ashes at sea. In Shanghai, officials upped their offer in the past year from $65 to a more persuasive $320. Topping them all, however, are the coastal cities of Shaoxing and Wenzhou, which are offering $800 and $1,290, respectively, for sea burials.

To sweeten the deal, the government often provides transportation, including all-expense-paid boat trips.

The official eagerness is fueled by bureaucratic fears of chaos and anger once the country runs out of graves — a certainty in coming years, according to recent studies.

To cut down on space, cremation already is required by law in cities, but land shortages have increasingly sparked risky investments for even the small graves in which those ashes are usually interred.

The cheapest spots in some of Beijing’s more desirable cemeteries sell for more than $16,000, and Chinese media reports have cited luxury tombs sold for as much as $129,000. With virtually unlimited demand, many come with hefty maintenance fees after an initial 20-year lease and guarantee eviction if they go unpaid.

And the problem will only get worse as China’s elderly population increases. In 2011, 9.6 million people died in China. A government report issued last week predicts the number will reach 20 million annually by 2025.

Most provinces will run out of burial room in the next 10 years, according to the study by the Ministry of Civil Affairs. A few provinces — such as Shanxi, Shandong and Guangdong — have fewer than five years.

Beijing’s leaders recently told state media that they are planning to shrink grave sizes this year — from the current limit of one square meter per person — to stretch their reserves.

Amid these dire straits, local officials began floating the sea burial idea in the past few years. The government-funded version of it — offered by most bigger cities — can resemble a half-day cruise.  [more]

Short on graves, China turns to sea burials

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