Anhui cremation campaign proves controversial

From midnight, 1 June 2014, the dead will be cremated (Source: Cheng Zhen / Oriental Morning Post)

Starting from midnight, 1 June 2014, all deceased persons will be cremated (Source: Cheng Zhen / Oriental Morning Post)

At the end of March, the city of Anqing, Anhui province, announced that it had drafted new funeral management regulations and would be pursuing a campaign to promote cremation. Provincial media noted in April that Anqing, one of two cities in Anhui that had not begun funeral reform, had a cremation rate of just 10% in 2013, far below the average of 80% across the province.

The project is ambitious: plans were debated in February, released in late March, and the campaign itself was launched on 1 April, with the goal of implementing cremation across the board by 1 June. The amended funeral rules themselves were passed in mid-April and publicized on 14 May.

Although the rules, management measures, and recommended publicity materials refer to the benefits of cremation on land use and social customs, the actual implementation appears to come down heavy on the penalty for violations.

A notice circulated on 1 April by the Anqing Funeral Reform Leading Group set out six rules for the reform effort:

1. All people within the cremation area shall have their remains cremated upon death, without exception.
2. Party members and cadres shall be cremated upon death, without exception.
3. The immediate family of the deceased will be severely punished for indiscriminate burial, without exception.
4. Smuggling of remains out of a medical institution for private internment shall be severely punished, without exception.
5. The manufacture and sale of coffins or other items of feudal superstition within the cremation area shall be severely punished, without exception.
6. Personnel who do not carry out their duties to the full shall be held strictly accountable, without exception.

A second notice on 4 April required personnel to work through the Qingming holiday and stated that anyone involved in facilitating or failing to stop illicit burials would be held accountable, and a third notice on 21 April ordered the destruction of graves constructed by the living in advance of their deaths (huoren mu 活人墓).

On 23 May, the Oriental Morning Post reported (in an article now unavailable on the paper’s website) that the program has proven controversial. Compensation of 1,500 yuan for urban residents and 1,000 yuan for rural residents is being offered in exchange for coffins, which locals say is well below the 4,000 yuan it costs to construct one. And although city and town authorities say that they’ve only just started registering coffins in advance of removal, there have been reports of local officials confiscating coffins by force.

More tragically, the Oriental Morning Post reported a number of cases in which elderly Anqing residents were driven to suicide so that they could be buried in the ground before the new rules take effect. A follow-up article on 25 May (also unavailable on the paper’s website) reported that families were being pressured to sign declarations that the suicides had nothing to do with the funeral policy reform.

Comparisons have been made to the city of Zhoukou, Henan province, whose grave-flattening spree in late 2012 prompted a nationwide storm of criticism for its haste and disregard for people’s feelings. An op-ed in The Beijing News criticized the two-month time frame as an overly-ambitious, “Great Leap Forward”-style catch-up to a state that surrounding areas took a decade to achieve. Sentiments were similar throughout the national commercial media, with special anger directed at officials whose lack of foresight drove eighty- and ninety-somethings to their deaths.

On 27 May, a staffer at the Anhui provincial Civil Affairs Department told the Legal Mirror that a departmental investigation had ruled out any connection between the deaths and the reforms, and that the program would not be swayed by public opinion. ‘Who can guarantee that no one will die before 1 June? Could people be exploiting that to smear the policy?’

Links and sources
Anhui Daily 安徽日报: 安庆:全面推进殡葬改革 严打乱埋乱葬等行为 (2014-04-03)
Oriental Morning Post 东方早报: 安徽安庆殡葬改革引发争议 (2014-05-24) archived version 安徽殡葬改革涉事村委会被指 (2014-05-25) via China News
Oriental Morning Post legal reporting team 东方早报法治报道组: 安徽安庆强推殡葬改革,多名高龄老人在大限前自尽 (2014-05-23) image version (expanded version of 24 May print story circulated on Wechat and Weibo)
Legal Mirror 法制晚报: 安徽民政厅回应多名老人大限前自尽:与殡葬改革无关 (2014-05-27) via Phoenix
The Beijing News
新京报: 用两个月改千年土葬风俗可能吗 (2014-05-26)
AQBTN 安庆网络广播电视: 安庆市殡葬改革工作领导小组通告(第一号) (2014-04-01), 安庆市殡葬改革工作领导小组通告(第二号) (2014-04-04), 安庆市殡葬改革工作领导小组通告(第三号) (2014-04-22)
Anqing Civil Affairs Bureau 安庆市民政局: 宜政办发7号安庆市人民政府办公室关于印发安庆市殡葬改革实施方案庆监字〔2014〕5号关于印发《安庆市殡葬管理工作责任追究暂行规定民务字38关于印发《安庆市殡葬基本公共服务惠民工程实施办法》的办秘9号 关于成立安庆市殡葬改革工作领导小组的通知安庆市人民政府办公室关于印发安庆市殡葬改革实施方案的通知安庆市殡葬管理办法(市政府令第79号)关于印发《2014年安庆市殡葬改革宣传方案》的通知