Body repatriation becomes growing business in country

Updated: 2012-09-18 01:29

By Li Yao (China Daily)

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With millions of people flocking to China from overseas, either for travel or work, it's little wonder that a greater number are returning home in a box.

Roughly 1,500 foreign nationals die in China every year, according to an estimate by a funeral industry insider, with even more Chinese people meeting the same fate abroad.

Tragic as those statistics may be for some, funeral parlors that offer body repatriation services have witnessed a steady increase in business over the last decade.

With more companies jostling for market share, however, some have complained that State-owned enterprises have established a monopoly, which coupled with lax government supervision has resulted in inflated prices.

Set up in 1993, the National Funeral Association has built a network of 34 funeral parlors spread across 25 provinces, municipalities and regions, handling a combined 1,800 body repatriations a year. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, that number represents a sixfold increase from the early 1990s.

The main causes of foreigners' deaths are heart attacks, especially myocardial infarction, and traffic accidents, the association said, but was unable to break down the numbers.

Traveling corpses

Only funeral homes licensed by the association can handle the corpses of foreign nationals, while quarantine authorities decide which of them can move the bodies.

Babaoshan Funeral Services was one of the first such businesses to be established and is still the only authorized funeral home in Beijing. Because of its long-standing connections with embassies, consulates and international airlines, the State-owned company is not limited to the capital, and can take jobs across China, said Gao Qi, who is in charge of foreign remains repatriation.

Other centers usually work a district, such as Chengdu Funeral Services, the certified service in Sichuan province. "If someone in Tibet calls us, we will take the case, because the autonomous region has no (association-licensed) place there."

It usually takes about five working days to have all the required documents ready to send the body home by plane. Police and forensic exams will be needed if the cause of the death is unknown. People that die of infectious diseases should be cremated at a funeral home, according to Chinese policies, Huang said.

The services can cost thousands of US dollars, and the prices are different from province to province, he said.

In Guangzhou, the cost is about 36,000 yuan ($5,700), which covers the coffin, embalming and documents from quarantine and customs authorities, said a man surnamed Zhi, who handles foreign bodies at Guangzhou funeral parlor, the only place authorized to do so in the province. Zhi declined to give his full name.

However, Beijing-based Wilfried Verbruggen, who runs a body repatriation service, said the lack of a standardized pricing system means some parlors can charge what they want.

If a foreigner dies in China, an authorized funeral director may charge between 25,000 to 50,000 yuan for just a coffin and embalmment. The price for body storage can be up to 800 yuan a day, depending on the room and the refrigerator chosen, said the Belgian, who runs Roseates, which has been shipping bodies since 2004.

His company, which has links to the National Funeral Association but is not a member, takes about 120 cases a year, mostly outbound to European countries, and about 20 Chinese inbounds. Verbruggen has also seen a growing demand from private clients, who are sometimes uninsured, from the United States in recent years.

Verbruggen says his profit margin is fixed at 7,500 yuan a case.

Sometimes with up to eight ongoing jobs at hand, his employees are in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Urumqi and Lhasa.

Verbruggen signed an agreement with the National Funeral Association several years ago to train more Chinese embalmers. He talked with the association about the possibility of opening new embalming centers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, but later had to give up because he failed to win the backing of authorities.

However, he is still confident that his business will be meaningful in China.

"People dying is a matter of fact. Although the number of expatriates may have decreased due to the financial crisis, China still has much potential to develop its tourism industry," he said. "It is a weird and obscure job. But I need that challenge and want to try the impossible. It is like an addiction, to help people do something in very pitiful circumstances.

"Although we can't do much, a little push, follow-up and problem anticipation, is worthwhile," he said.

Coming home

The National Funeral Association said inbound cases of Chinese nationals have seen the fastest growth in the human-remains repatriation business.

The association in recent years has repatriated dozens of Chinese that died abroad on construction projects launched by companies including China Railway Construction Corp, China Civil Engineering Construction Corp and Beijing Construction Engineering Group.

"For inbound cases, it is easier to work with foreign funeral directors. The prices are official and far cheaper than in China," Verbruggen said.

Some of the Chinese inbounds died while visiting popular tourist destinations such as Thailand or Bali, and usually die from drowning. Others were construction workers sent to Saudi Arabia or Africa, he said.

Verbruggen said Chinese families can be very demanding. If a relative dies, they will go to Chinese officers and complain. The families want the body back to hold a ceremony.

They feel more entitled as a customer and want things done their way, Verbruggen said.

"Maybe they see it as a way of caring about their relative. They think they have to do something rather than waiting," he said.

Verbruggen said clients in Europe and the US are more practical. They think, "What could I do if I went to China?", when a relative dies abroad. They trust the agents to take care of the matter.

Wang Jianping, managing director of ERV China, a travel insurance service in Beijing, said in the first half of this year, there had been eight cases of Chinese inbound corpses, including tourists in Thailand, the Maldives, Australia, Canada, France and Japan.

One particularly complex case involved a Chinese worker dying of malaria in Uganda. Because of poor medical services there, a treatable illness in China may be aggravated and soon lead to death, Wang said.

Uganda is a Catholic country, which forbids cremation and requires the repatriation of full remains. But because the man died of an infectious disease, returning the body was prohibited by China.

The best option is to transport the body to a neighboring country, where cremation is allowed, and take the ashes back to China from there, Wang said.

As the number of Chinese tourists and construction workers abroad continues to rise, more Chinese people have become the victims of accidents, robbery or assaults, Wang said.

If they are unfortunate enough to die abroad, although the costs can be covered by insurance, the process can be very complex because of religious practices, cultural differences and conflicts of working schedules between the departure country and the destination, she said.

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