Li Xing

Choosing roots in earth, water or fire

By Li Xing (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-04-01 07:20
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For many people, talk about death and burial is taboo. They'll only consider it when they must, when a loved one passes away.

That is why I was taken aback when my mother asked me what kind of burial we arranged for my parents-in-law.

Until my mother brought it up, I had not given it a thought. They are both in their "golden" 70s, each enjoying separate pursuits. My mother recently began to play the piano, an "exercise for both the body and the mind", she said.

I shouldn't have been surprised, however. It's that time of year. Tomb Sweeping Day falls on Monday, and millions of people have visited their loved ones in cemeteries over the past two weekends.

Tomb sweeping is a hot topic in the media and on the Internet these days, with many discussions focusing on different types of burials.

An overwhelming majority of Chinese now accepts cremation, but most still prefer to be buried in the ground. Age-old tradition, both here and elsewhere, dictates that final rest is ensured when one is buried underground. In Chinese, the expression is ru (enter) tu (the earth) wei (is) an (rest).

My cousins regularly pay their respects to my grandparents and my aunt, whose graves are in their village. Last year, my cousins had to relocate my aunt's remains when work started on a railway that runs through part of the old cemetery.

Many Chinese also subscribe to the belief that one will have years added to one's life once a burial site is secured. Of the 200 tombstones erected in one cemetery in Wuxi, 15 are for people who are still alive and kicking.

My mother told me the son of a friend of hers secured a burial site at the same cemetery where her friend was laid to rest a few years ago. Now the man, in his late 40s, lives a carefree life, supported by a pension and the rent he collects from his tenants.

Joining our discussion, my father told how a neighbor of theirs paid 300,000 yuan ($43,988) for a plot in suburban Miyun county, where two generations of their family will be buried.

However, as China's population grows and cities expand, space for cemeteries is dwindling. Cities around the world face the same problem.

In China, the price of a burial plot has soared, along with everything else. Local media in Changchun, Jilin province, report that the average price for a square-meter plot in one of the city's six cemeteries is more than 20,000 yuan ($2,932), almost five times the price of a square meter of housing. In Xiamen, a 250-square-meter plot was recently auctioned off for 8 million yuan ($1.17 million).

Although tradition runs deep, different types of burials are becoming popular these days. Some cemeteries now allow people to bury their loved ones under trees or flower beds, no tombstone required.

In November 2003, three months after my mother-in-law passed away, my family buried her at sea off the coast of Shanghai, the city where she spent her youth. We gave her a simple but solemn burial, spreading her ashes on the water.

We joined some 200 other mourners on a special cruise ship that took us to the mouth of the Yangtze River. Many families spread flower petals on the sea to commemorate their loved ones.

Sea burial is not new in China. The first, well-publicized sea burial was that of the late Premier Zhou Enlai, whose ashes were scattered off the coast of Tianjin where he embarked on the road to founding New China. Other veteran Chinese leaders, including Deng Xiaoping and his wife Zhuo Lin, also chose sea burial. The sea is where all life originates. It is a good place to rest, without competing with the living for space on land.

As for my parents, I told them about sea burial, but then we dropped the subject.