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China touts sea burials as space for graves shrinks

The Washington Post

In a country of almost 1.4 billion people, life for Chinese is an unending struggle for resources. And it doesn’t get easier in death. Prices for graves are skyrocketing, driven by decades of unbridled development and scarce city land. The government’s answer to this conundrum: sea burials.

Officials across China are hard-selling the option of a watery grave by offering hefty financial incentives and planting stories in state media — but with only marginal success. Many local governments, however, have saved their strongest pitches for this week, timing them to coincide with the Qingming Festival, when families nationwide take a day off to sweep their ancestors’ graves.

In the metropolis of Guangzhou, officials announced a $160 bonus for families that scatter ashes at sea. In Shanghai, authorities upped their offer from $65 to a more persuasive $320. But topping them all are the coastal cities of Shaoxing and Wenzhou, which are offering $800 and $1,290 for sea burials.

To sweeten the deal, the government often provides transportation, including all-expense-paid boat trips.

The official eagerness is fueled by bureaucratic fears of chaos and anger once the country runs out of graves — a certainty in coming years, according to recent studies. To cut down on space, cremation already is required by law in cities, but land shortages have increasingly sparked risky investments for even the small graves in which ashes are usually interred.

The cheapest spots in some of Beijing’s more desirable cemeteries sell for more than $16,000, and Chinese media reports have cited luxury tombs sold for as much as $129,000.

And the problem will only get worse as China’s elderly population increases. In 2011, 9.6 million people died in the country. A government report issued last week predicts the number will reach 20 million annually by 2025. Most provinces will run out of burial room in the next 10 years, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, while a few provinces have fewer than five years.

Amid these dire straits, local officials began floating the sea burial idea in the past few years. The government-funded version of it, offered by most bigger cities, can resemble a half-day cruise. Critics worry that tradition and meaning of ancestor-honoring rites are being tossed out amid the initiatives.

“Han Chinese have been burying their dead for thousands of years,” noted Zhou Xiaozheng of Beijing’s Renmin University. “It’s not wrong to subsidize sea burials . . . but saving land shouldn’t be the deciding factor for how someone chooses to be buried. China’s land belongs to all Chinese. Why shouldn’t they get 1 sq. meter to lay down in when they die?”