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As Attitudes Change in China, People Look to the Sea for Burial

A man scatters the ashes of his parents and grandmother into the ocean during a sea burial ceremony near Shanghai, May 10, 2014.
Before Li Zhenxuan died at the age 101, the former chief officer of a Chinese riverboat told his son he wanted his ashes to be spread at sea along with those of his mother, who passed away in 1965, and his wife, who died in 1995.

On a rainy Saturday this month, his son poured 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 an aging population, soaring property prices and increasingly scarce land, the Chinese government has been trying for years to convince more people to break with tradition and bury loved ones at sea.

But it 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,'" the son said. 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.
A man sits next to a bag containing the ashes of a deceased relative as he travels on a ferry before a sea burial ceremony in Shanghai, May 10, 2014.
A man sits next to a bag containing the ashes of a deceased relative as he travels on a ferry before a sea burial ceremony in Shanghai, May 10, 2014.

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 about 250 people on a converted ferry. Organizers allow a maximum of six family members to accompany each urn.

Several other cities offer sea burials, including Beijing, Qingdao and Tianjin.

“Concepts are changing. Land is limited, the population is increasing, and so the capacity of land will be exceeded. This saves resources,” said Yu Yijun, who was scattering the ashes of his grandmother.

“Old generations still care about traditions but young people may no longer think they're important.”

'A waste'

For some, the cost is the deciding factor.

To promote sea burials, the government gives each family a subsidy of 2,000 yuan ($320) and the boat ride is free. By contrast, a traditional burial in Shanghai, one of China's most expensive cities, can cost from 40,000 yuan ($6,450) to more than half a million yuan ($80,000).

New urban cemetery land is limited and regulations are complex. There is already a waiting list of up to two years for a grave.

“The family cemetery is disappearing in China,” said Zhang Yunhua, general manager of FIS, a state-owned funeral service that has linked up with the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau Funeral Service Center to offer sea burials.

“People in a family may be buried in seven or eight different places. It's too hard to take care of all the grave sites. Cemeteries are expensive now and if you don't keep paying the management fee, no one will take care of the grave, then it will disappear naturally. It's a waste.”

As the ferry returns to port, some people step on deck for a smoke and to watch the gray industrial landscape glide by.

In China's increasingly urban society, many people struggle to try to adapt to keep traditions alive.

A passenger surnamed Zhao, scattering his wife's ashes, believes sea burials will simplify life on “Tomb Sweeping Day” each spring, a holiday when people pay respects to ancestors by tidying up their graves.

“We can honor the deceased at home... It's important to keep someone in your mind, but you don't have to show this to others,” he said.

“Children are busy these days. They have a lot of pressure from work. They don't have time to visit their families' graves. Honoring them in the home is enough.”