Tales of the City: Eco-burials on the Rise

By Dominique Wong, November 4, 2015

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The drive to make the city less smoggy and more environmentally friendly takes many forms. But recent news suggests that the authorities have been thinking outside the box – or casket, rather.

Last month, the government announced plans to ensure that at least half of its deceased citizens have ‘eco-friendly’ funerals by 2020 in an effort to save space and reduce the environmental impact of scattered ashes.

To help spread the message, the Beijing civil affairs department has asked all districts with cemeteries to build a ‘green cemetery’ for show and is instructing them to turn traditional cemeteries into green ones. In Beijing, more than 30 are currently offer eco-friendly funerals.

So what exactly does that mean? Examples of ‘green burials’ include burying a deceased loved one’s ashes under a tree or in a flowerbed, or spreading them in the sea. Another suggested method is to use dissolvable urns, which have been offered in Tianjin since 2012.

But despite the alleged environmental benefits, the eco-funeral faces resistance. This is due, in part, to ingrained cultural traditions that see taking care of the deceased’s remains as a sign of love and respect.

In the past, traditional land burials (involving a plot of land and tombstone) have been the preferred method, as many Chinese believe this brings peace to the deceased. There is of course an entire festival (Qingming), dedicated to the sweeping of ancestor’s tombs.

As such, the government’s goal to increase eco-friendly burials is undoubtedly a little green around the edges, and still in its early stages. But there are positive signs. Since opening eco-friendly packages in August, authorities at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery say they have received nearly 100 applications so far. But bearing in mind that nine million people die across China every year, there’s some way to go before there’s a green life after death. 

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