Sunday, April 5, 2015

Poor Funeral Directors!

In a recently released report is disclosed that funeral workers in China are among the most psychologically distressed groups, with nearly half the workers suffering some form of depression. This report, generated by the Ministry of Civil Affairs concludes that 21.3 percent suffer from severe psychological problems. 


Didn't I state, in the Death Rites entry posted February 2011 that death was an incontrovertible part of life in China? That, for momentous occasions such as the birth of a child, a marriage and, of course all of the major holidays like Spring Festival, people burn paper money so their dead will have money to spend in the afterlife?

Of course, these days people burn facsimiles of I-Phones, luxury cars and jewelry so that their ancestors can enjoy status in the afterlife as well. That is a relatively new trend distorting the reverence of celebrating one's ancestors, and enterprising merchants are cashing in on it: Apple gift packs including an I-Phone, an I-Pad, ear buds and that nifty watch that Apple came out with, all made of cardboard, for more durable burning. These sell for 10Yuan.
Another relatively new trend of death in China is burial at sea. As land is scarce and population is plentiful, the question of where to bury the dead has stymied this government, and the problem has grown exponentially in these times when more people are dying than are being born. Cremation became law several years ago as a way to deter those who would bury their loved ones in their fields, ostensibly so that their spirit can watch over the crops. Now, even finding room for cremains is a challenge. Scattering ashes at sea has become a satisfying alternative for those with little money to buy a plot. In some parts of the country, the government offers cash incentives to those who would select that option.

Donating bodies to science or universities has come to the forefront of the issue, with the stipulation that the receiving organization must be an approved institution: a medical school or an establishment above municipal level – say, a state run laboratory. In Guangzhou, relatives need not consent to donation as long as the arrangements have been made in advance by the person wishing to contribute to science. Previously, donation could be halted by a relative who doesn't agree to such a disposal of their loved one.

I've long ago determined that I would donate my body and all of my organs. I don't wish to be interred or burned and then interred when my organs and corpse could continue to help others, even after I no longer occupy it. Imagine my joy at finding out I could donate! But then, another article: Foreigners who die in China can be expected to pay a hefty price.

Assuming loved ones back home would like a physical form returned to them so that they might perform their rites, preparing a body for transportation carries a price tag of 7,500 Yuan (about $1,200), and that does not include paperwork, transportation and storage fees, nor does it count the price of the funeral in the country of destination. The grand total for an expat dying in China can amount to 80,000 Yuan!   

And then, there's the small matter of price gouging. While funerary fees are fixed by the government for Chinese nationals at 300Yuan, it jumps substantially for foreigners: to an average of 8,000Yuan. And still the necessary paperwork – with fees, and contacting the embassy, and shipping the cremains. And the small matter of storing the body prior to cremation: for Chinese, 3Yuan per day. For expats: 20Yuan per day.

What if the foreigner in question loves China so much that they wish to be buried here? Legislation largely bans it, with the small exception of one cemetary in Shanghai, and only if that foreigner has made exceptional contributions to Chinese society. I don't know what qualifies as 'exceptional', and I don't want to be buried anyway. Unfortunately I don't know how the law is formulated for expats who wish to donate their body.

Before I get back to our poor morticians, and to illustrate how severe the stigma is against them, let me tell you the story of the woman who had to change address 3 times in 6 years because she did not bury her parents according to tradition. She acceeded to her parents' wish to be donors, thus she incurred no funeral expenses and, in fact, got a little cash for their generosity. Apparently her neighbors felt she was unfilial and disrespectful. They held that she should have denied her parents their wishes and buried them. She could no longer stand their jabs and taunts. Hopefully she does not disclose her parents' final destination to her new neighbors.

Or hopefully, she will. The Chinese largely regard even blood donation from living people as sacrilegious. Why would one give away one's qi – life force? Thus, organ and body donation has a long way to go to become socially acceptable here, and the only way for it to gain acceptance is through education. So maybe my hope should be that this woman finds a progressive neighborhood to live in, in which she can share her experiences openly and teach others of this more charitable option. 

Funeral directors are equally stigmatized, and I don't understand why. It seems everyone wants a dignified burial ceremony and strives to provide a comfortable afterlife for their dear departed, but the people who facilitate the transition from one life to the next are villified. One funeral director, in the business for over 20 years reports that he is too ashamed to tell people what he does for a living. He can't get technicians to come fix broken down equipment in his shop. Because those who deal in death are so negatively branded, many in the industry struggle to find pride in work or even a work identity that doesn't clash with social mores.

While death is an accepted part of life in Chinese culture, it is not openly discussed. On the contrary: it violates basic social principles. So, even though morticians are performing a legitimate and needed  service, they are condemned for their role in society. Seems to me that that is yet one more oxymoron of Chinese culture: puzzling but perhaps unchangeable.

Or is it? What if we could make a paradigm shift? Include the mechanics of transition from one life to the next in the reverence our ancestor are entitled to? After all: those ancestors would not have made it to the afterlife without the proper ministrations of those qualified and trained to prepare the bodies. 

To me, maligning a mortician is rather like cussing a taxi driver for taking you to your destination. Seems silly, doesn't it? Didn't you ask the taxi driver to do his/her job? Aren't morticians necessary for the proper and dignified disposal of human remains?

Could you imagine the world without properly disposed remains?

Today is Qing Ming, China's tomb sweeping festival. Whereas, during any other celebration ancestors are revered close to home – with an altar in their honor prominently displayed, or burning paper money and those recently on-the-market gift packs on the sidewalks, today millions will migrate to the tombs to perform their ancient rites. Could I ask a favor, please?

For just a minute, could you give a kind thought to the people who paved the way for your ancestor's dignified passage to the afterlife?  

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