Shanghai promotes burials at sea

Updated: 2012-12-24 00:29

By Shi Yingying in Shanghai (China Daily)

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A shortage of land in Shanghai has prompted the municipal government to offer a larger subsidy to promote sea burials.

The local authority has announced a fivefold increase, from 400 yuan ($64) to 2,000 yuan, in subsidies to encourage Shanghai residents to consider the sea option.

Shanghai promotes burials at sea

A woman scatters ashes of a loved one mixed with flower petals at a sea burial last year off Shanghai in the East China Sea. The city has made the last Saturday of March public memorial day for those buried at sea. HU LINGXIANG / FOR CHINA DAILY 

Starting next year, Shanghai will subsidize families choosing a sea burial by 1,000 yuan and the another 1,000 yuan will go to pay service providers to cover costs such as ship tickets and insurance, Lu Chunling, director of funeral management under Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau, said on Tuesday.

"Those opting for burial at sea will save 1 square meter of land in Shanghai, and that would cost about 24,000 yuan if it was a burial plot," said Lu.

With an increasingly elderly population and 110,000 deaths annually, Shanghai authorities and cemetery operators have been promoting sea burials since 1991.

However, most people still shun the option because it is traditionally believed that the soul can find peace only when the body is buried on land.

According to Wu Xiaogang, a manager at the Shanghai Funeral and Interment Service Center, only around 2,000 people were buried at sea in 2012, about 1.8 percent of all burials.

"Sea burials in Shanghai have increased by 5 to 8 percent each year since 1991," said Lu. The local government offered a 200 yuan subsidy for each sea burial from 2002 and raised the amount to 400 yuan in 2007.

Lu said that even though the new subsidy applies from 2013, those who held sea burials in 2012 could still claim the money.

"It's not all about money, there are cases of people opting for a sea burial without claiming anything," said Lu. "We're just sending the signal that it's the most environmentally friendly way of burial and our government is encouraging residents to do it."

Shi Hong, 34, from Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, lost his wife last year and said he chose burial at sea because both he and his wife were Buddhists and that was her last wish.

"She liked the idea of a sea burial because Zhoushan (the site of one of Buddhism's sacred mountains in China) has a relatively good location for the ceremony,'' Shi said.

In Shi's opinion, Buddhists in Zhoushan might accept sea burial more easily than other people and the scenery for such ceremonies can be spectacular, he said. "People wouldn't decide on it for money, so the incentive alone is never enough," said Shi.

Zhang Yunhua, general manager of Shanghai Feisi Sea Burial Co, the city's only authorized sea burial company, said it's still hard to cover costs, even with the government's extra subsidy.

"It used to cost about 7,000 yuan to rent the big ferry, which carries 600 to 700 people, for a single trip in the 1990s, and nowadays it costs about 30,000 yuan to rent a small one, which only holds 270 people," he said, adding that his company would still face a deficit even with the new subsidies.

Shanghai's funeral homes said they have lost money when cremating bodies in recent years because of an increase in diesel prices.

About 25,560 urns of ash have been scattered at sea in Shanghai since 1991, saving the city some 76,700 square meters of land.

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