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Chinese Cremation

The Intriguing History of a Tradition

Cremation in China is quickly approaching the same level of popularity that it has developed in the last few decades across the world. Latest statistics show that nearly 46 percent of Chinese deaths result in cremation. That’s up from about 15 percent in the mid-20th century. But, for proponents of cremation, the current Chinese numbers may be a bit discouraging. See, in most places in China, cremation is required by law.

Cremation is required by law in some places in China Under communist rule in China in the 1940’s, officials banned traditional burial and mandated that all deaths require cremation. In doing this, they cited all of the usual arguments in support of cremation. They said burial in a cemetery was a waste of space, harmful to the environment, and much more expensive than cremation. In many cases, the new laws were not in conflict with their traditions surrounding death since China’s population is home to many Buddhists who have long turned to cremation as their preferred form of disposition of the body.  However, it is important to note that Buddhism does not specifically require cremation. In fact, the religion’s major texts are almost silent on the topic. That said, tradition tends to encourage the practice of cremation.

But in other cases, there was resistance. And enforcing the cremation mandate proved difficult.

Government officials decided to not battle with residents over cremation, so enforcement was, more or less, voluntary, as it continues to be today. As with other developed nations, China began simply publishing literature extolling the virtue of cremation and doing other similar peaceful initiatives to persuade Chinese into opting for cremation.

Today in China, deaths in large cities result in cremation almost 100 percent of the time. But in the rural areas, where conservative values, not communistic rulers, are the moral code, burial – even illegal – remains the predominant choice.

Traditional in family and community cemeteries remains common place throughout rural China today despite the requirement for cremation, and it remains to be seen if government officials will ever take drastic measures to enforce their laws against burial. In the meantime, it seems that cremation is not universally accepted as an ideal choice, even among those who live in large cities and Traditional in family and community cemeteries remains common place throughout rural Chinatypically submit to the rule. Political dissent in China, even on matters such as this, is often met with stern enforcement that typically keeps critics quiet. But, in this case, there is an bit of an indication that the cremation requirement might not sit well, if it were ever put to a popular vote. “If it’s legal when I die, I want to be buried, not cremated,” one man in the city of Liuzhou told a foreign reporter one day.

It’s not surprising that Luizhou would spawn at least a bit of a resistance on this topic, however. That town was once home to Longevity Lane, long known as best place in China to buy high quality wooden caskets. (In fact, one legend reports that Longevity Lane coffins were so well build that they would preserve a body perfectly for up to six months after death.) That famous street is now called Evergreen Lane and it is home to apartment dwellers who live in coffin factories that have been renovated for dwellings. Little sign of the street’s former life in the death business remains today.

Such is the story of Chinese cremations.

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