We’re Running out of Space: Burial Rituals in Shanghai






And for today’s quirky  topic…. Here’s a post about Sea Burials in China!

Most of us know that China has a HUGE population, currently totaling around 1.3 BILLION people, and the government has been focused on having a sustainable popluation. Policies such as the One Child Policy are trying to curb such such problems, but, currently, China isn’t only worrying about sustaining it’s population’s needs for food, housing, and resources, but also the quickly deminishing places to bury the dead. China simply does not have space for cemeteries. It’s THAT crowded.

In large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Wenzhou, and Chengdu, all citizens are required by law to be cremated in an effort to save land that would otherwise be allocated to burial plots. However, China is not running out of space for urn placement. Funeral and burial costs can range from 40,000-500,000 yuan, which is three times the price of an apartment in Shanghai! 

Because of this, Shanghai (along with other major sea port cities) have began subsidized Sea Burial, which is a group-burial process where loved ones scatter ashes in the sea as opposed to purchasing a resting place for an urn. The Shanghai government currently subsizes Sea Burial, making it completely free for the family.

Yet, Shanghai Sea Burial still only makes up about 1.8% of total burials. Why? 

I believe the older generation of Shanghainese oppose Sea Burial because of traditional Chinese values related to the family unit. China’s society revolves heavily around the family, and the remembrance of ancestors is very important. Chinese want to be buried near other relatives, and have a physical space for their remaining family to visit and pay homage to. Moreover, because of the predominantly Confusian and Buddhist influence in China, there is no idea of family reunion in heaven or hell. And, instead, dying loved ones can only look forward to their memory being preserved by their decendents. 

Without a physical resting place, the importance of family and ancestor remembrance may slowly fade away from China’s society. One of the largest national holidays in China is Tomb Sweeping Day, where family members clean and make offerings at their ancestor’s graves. If Sea Burial were to become more popular in Shanghai, this holiday would be completely changed. Instead of having a single day dedicated to remembering your ancestors and doing an act of remembrance, family members would instead remember their deceased loved ones on their own and at a more internal level. 

The Chinese government predicts that by 2025, there will be no more land available for burial spaces, and thus Sea Burial is expected to become more and more popular. But this isn’t just a change in tradition, it is a change in a way of thinking, priorities, and relationships, and it will be interesting to see the affects of burial ceremonies affect China’s society in the years coming.