The so-called funeral reform policy first surfaced in a swirl of rumors and, later, through a terse bulletin posted outside the local government office.
Wu Qisi, 94, heard about it from his barber. In response, he decided to die.
Wu, a rice farmer, was one of at least seven elderly Anqing residents who reportedly hastened their deaths or committed suicide in the spring of last year in reaction to the unconventional approach that local government officials took to implementing long-standing national guidelines on funerals. The local officials decreed that anyone who died before June 1, 2014, could be buried; but after that, cremations would be mandatory.
The aging residents of Anqing, a city of 5 million in eastern China’s Anhui province, died in a last-minute rush to beat the time limit, according to local news reports and interviews with villagers.
“Everybody who dies is buried in the dirt,” said Wu’s son, Wu Qimiao, 74. “They’re put in a coffin and buried. And when you suddenly change something like this, some people can’t accept it.”
The tradition of ancestor worship in China, including funerals and burials in hand-crafted coffins beneath one’s field, stretches back millenniums. But in recent decades, it has clashed with a pro-cremation policy drafted by Mao Tse-tung in 1956, seven years after he proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Burials take up too much arable land, Mao claimed, and involve rituals unbefitting an officially atheist state. He left it to local governments to work out the specifics.
At this point, nearly all of China’s urbanites — about half the population — are cremated when they die. Yet in the vast countryside, where history has a stronger hold, the transformation has become a recurring tinderbox, pitting ancient traditions against the Communist Party’s obsession with control.
In 2012, the government of Zhoukou, a sprawling city in Henan, one of China’s poorest provinces, demolished 400,000 graves to reclaim arable land, sparking a nationwide controversy. Villagers accused the government of plans to flip the reclaimed land for profit, according to local reports; the following winter, they restored scores of graves in retaliation.
In December 2013, authorities in Xuancheng — a city in Anhui province about 125 miles from Anqing — dug up the recently buried corpse of an 83-year-old man, doused it in gasoline and set it on fire after the man’s family refused to cremate him.
Less than a year later, two Guangdong province officials were caught buying corpses from grave robbers to meet cremation quotas. Both were arrested.
“In China, down to very recent times, acting properly was more important than having correct beliefs,” said David Johnson, an expert on traditional Chinese village culture and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley. “And the way to act properly was to act in accordance with ritual. There were rituals for all the important events in life, but they were of two basic kinds: rituals for the living and rituals for the dead.
“Rituals for the dead were always most important,” he said. “This runs way, way back — it was driven by the belief that after death a person’s soul or spirit needed to be treated with the greatest care and respect, lest it cause harm to the living. This meant among other things proper funeral ceremonies and proper burials, in auspicious tomb sites if possible.”
Xianrong, a village of 300, is much like others in Anqing: Children chase one another along trash-strewn paths as their grandparents toil in the fields, loading armfuls of rice stalks into giant wicker baskets.
In major Chinese cities, interments involve state-run cemeteries, socialist funerals and expensive urns for cremated ashes. In Xianrong, as in many other villages, people continue to construct their parents’ coffins themselves. The dead are rubbed with lime to keep them from rotting. They lie in repose for days-long funerals, then they’re buried beneath fields of grain.
For two weeks after he heard the news about mandatory cremations, Wu Qisi — who had grown frail and nearly blind — refused to eat or drink, his son said as he smoked a cigarette in his living room beneath a giant poster of Mao.
Family members gathered by Wu’s bedside, soothing his cracked lips with pieces of ice. “I don’t want to be burned,” the old man told them. He died days later, too emaciated to utter last words.
Anqing officials have denied that the policy caused any deaths. “The whole reform went very, very smoothly,” insisted Qian Shouzhuang, Xianrong’s party secretary. “Zero people resisted. Nobody in this village put up any resistance to the reform.”
Qian said that villagers are thankful for the increase in arable land, and happy to spend less on funerals. Families who had already prepared coffins have been generously compensated, he said.
He added that the policy would protect the area’s environment — last year, he explained, villagers sparked a forest fire while burning offerings in the hills, and 20 Anqing officials were reprimanded for negligence. “It might take dozens of years for a tree to grow,” he said, “but only a moment for someone to burn it down.”
The state-run Beijing News tallied six elderly suicides across the municipality. Some elderly villagers drank pesticide, it said in a report; one jumped down a well; another killed herself after officials destroyed her coffin in front of her.
Wang Minghu, a 53-year-old fisherman in Xiangjin, a village of 1,500 people near Xianrong, said that his 81-year-old mother Zhang Wenyi hanged herself from a tree after hearing about the policy in May 2014.
“Not one person here actually wants to be cremated,” said Wang. “Maybe one exception is the party secretary, the village cadres. But no one else.”
Zhang lived in a small dirt-floored bedroom behind Wang’s two-story farmhouse. Her room contained a twin-size bed and a crude wooden desk. Every day, she woke up before sunrise to sell eggs in the village’s “old town,” a stretch of drafty wooden homes along a narrow concrete thoroughfare. One day, she overheard other sellers whispering about cremations.
“I heard about the new policy — what am I going to do?” she asked his older brother, Wang recalled. “You’re too old,” he replied. “The law doesn’t apply to you.”
About two weeks later, around 8 in the morning on May 13, she hanged herself.
“The village government forced us to sign an agreement to say that my mother didn’t die because of the funeral policy — that she died because of a fight with her neighbor,” said Wang. Since then, he has begun to move on with his life; recently, he cut down the tree that his mother used to hang herself.
Wu, in Xianrong village, said he has also begun to heal. “We were able to bury [my father], because he died before June 1,” he said. “At least he got his wish.”