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Dying large in China

Lavish funeral practices and huge grave sites are returning after decades of suppression. At times, the rituals resemble bachelor parties.

February 12, 2007|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

Baotou, China — ATOP a hill in the sprawling Donghe Cemetery, on a spot said to have good feng shui, sits a 10,000-square-foot semicircular tomb adorned with a pagoda, stone dragons and a massive upended boulder. Cemetery workers say the plot, bought by a karaoke parlor owner, cost about $110,000.

"He's only 40 years old, but he bought a five-generation tomb," said Li Daxi, who has worked at the cemetery in Inner Mongolia for six years. "Now that's thinking ahead."

At the cemetery's main office, two salesmen rouse themselves from a spot near the heater on this chilly winter day, pointing out the facility's low- and high-rent districts in a lavish brochure titled "The Back Garden of Life." The memorials and plots run from $600 to more than $125,000.

"Prices are negotiable," one salesman said, his desk empty except for a cash-counting machine. "You get a 30% break if you move your family over from another graveyard."

For centuries, Chinese have believed that a large grave site bestows honor on the deceased and earns respect from future generations. And for decades, the Communist Party has tried to snuff out China's rich funeral tradition, condemning it as superstitious, wasteful and a result of ill-gotten gains.

As Chinese become more wealthy, lavish practices are creeping back, often over the party's objections. Funeral spending has increased with incomes in recent years, making the industry among China's 10 most profitable, with many urban Chinese spending several years' worth of disposable income on funerals, government figures show.

Behind China's culture of ostentatious funerals and graves is a belief system built around filial piety, ancestor worship and social prestige, anthropologists say.

Confucius' call for restrained mourning rituals has been drowned out by the likes of 20th century scholar Lin Yutang, who favored celebrations filled with fury and extravagance.

"There is no reason to be solemn," he wrote. "Even today I can't tell the difference between the rituals of a funeral and a wedding until I see a coffin or a bridal sedan chair."

On occasion, the rituals in modern China resemble bachelor parties.

In August, police in Jiangsu province arrested five women who staged the ultimate send-off for a dead farmer: a strip show. Among the services provided by local "dance troupes" were nude performances with snakes and suggestive funeral dances with male migrant workers, the national network CCTV reported.

This titillation can serve a higher purpose, state media hastened to add, namely to swell the crowd.

"Local villagers believe the more people attending a funeral, the more honor is bestowed on the dead person," the New China News Agency reported.

In a bid to end over-the-top spending of questionable funds, the Communist Party has been cracking down on ostentatious tombs for officials, high-profile party members and their families.

Feng Wenchao, an executive at China's state tobacco monopoly, died in July of a brain embolism at 63. Some villagers in Qingtang, seven hours over bad roads from Chongqing in south-central China, say Feng may have been the victim of a witch hunt by powerful and well-connected enemies in the government that saw him investigated, fired and jailed on corruption charges, ultimately destroying his health.

"He was no more corrupt than anyone else at his level," said Zhang Delin, 44, a local business owner, sitting a few hundred feet from the three-story villa Feng allegedly built with government funds in Qingtang.

As he talked, he gestured in the direction of Feng's $12,000, 700-square-foot tomb on a hill just outside of town. Its two stone lions were knocked over, the electric poles for a dedicated lighting system were buried in the weeds, and a stone wall was in pieces.

The destruction followed numerous reports in state-run media on Feng and the tomb that exaggerated its size and, villagers say, convicted him long before his 10-year sentence was handed down.

"He was very well liked and gave a lot back to the community," Zhang said. "I think, in the end, the stress over this grave business killed him."


ALTHOUGH crooked, self-aggrandizing officials are a focal point of the government's campaign, the party also has targeted wealthy businesspeople.

Last year, poultry processing entrepreneur Xu Guifen built a 3,000-square-foot tomb of white marble in her native southeastern Jiangxi province, replete with four platforms, a specially built road, stone stairway and flower-adorned stone balusters.

The tomb, erected on national park land, brought her family great honor until government investigators arrived and forced her to tear it down. "After careful reflection, I realize building such a tomb is indeed improper," the chastised millionaire told state-run media.

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