Thousands of confiscated coffins and an exhumed corpse stoke fury in China

Videos posted on social media showed police raiding houses, excavators crushing piles of empty coffins and workers dismantling elaborate tombs.
Videos posted on social media showed police raiding houses, excavators crushing piles of empty coffins and workers dismantling elaborate tombs.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM WEIBO.COM

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - A provincial government in southeastern China has criticised local officials after a campaign to phase out burials led to widespread complaints about the destruction of thousands of coffins and the exhumation of at least one corpse.

The province of Jiangxi had been promoting "burial reform", and encouraging residents to have their dead cremated rather than buried. The goal is to reduce the use of land for graveyards and spending on expensive coffins.

Such changes have been promoted in several places around China in recent years, and often clash with traditional ideas about the treatment of dead bodies.

On Wednesday (Aug 1), the Jiangxi provincial government backtracked somewhat. It did not apologise but instead blamed overzealous local officials, saying some counties and towns "were excessive in handling matters".

"Although these were in the minority, they caused harmful effects and hurt some people's feelings," the Jiangxi department of civil affairs said in a statement.

In Jiangxi and some other parts of China, people buy their coffins and store them in their homes. To meet a target of having all dead be cremated starting Sept 1, officials in some rural parts of Jiangxi confiscated and destroyed coffins that many older people had long saved to buy.

Videos posted on social media showed police raiding houses, excavators crushing piles of empty coffins and workers dismantling elaborate tombs.

Such methods shocked many in China and were criticised in national media outlets.

"To crudely implement a 100 per cent cremation rate, these methods are inhuman, unlawful and should stop immediately," The Procuratorate Daily, a state-run legal newspaper, said on Tuesday.

One local government in Yiyang County in Jiangxi announced in April that officials had exhumed the coffin of an 81-year-old villager whom family members had buried near their home. The coffin and the corpse were then cremated.

"The entire process went smoothly, and family members were even-tempered," the county government announced subsequently.

A reporter for The Legal Daily, another state-run newspaper, found otherwise, writing in May that locals considered the act deeply disrespectful and had burst into tears when they learnt of the plan.

Four years ago, when one city in neighbouring Anhui province began seizing coffins, six elderly people killed themselves, The Beijing News reported.

In Hong Kong, where most people are cremated, the government has encouraged the spreading of ashes in gardens or in the sea because of dwindling space for special buildings in which to store urns.

The changes in Jiangxi did have top-level official support. During an event last month (July), Mr Liu Qi, the provincial governor and Communist Party secretary, said that burial reform would "break 1,000-year" customs and "benefit the nation, the people and future generations", according to a summary of his comments in The Jiangxi Daily.

He encouraged officials to "conscientiously implement the central government's requirements and closely focus on the goal of funerals that benefit the people, are green and civilised", the newspaper said.

In an open letter issued on Tuesday, a group of lawyers, scholars and journalists from Jiangxi questioned the legality of such a one-size-fits-all implementation across the province, including in rural areas without cremation facilities. The letter asked who was profiting under such a scheme, and what compensation would be offered for people whose coffins were confiscated and destroyed.

"With this sort of 'enforcement', do the rulers have the least bit of respect for people, the least bit of empathy for the families of the dead?" they wrote.

The statement from the Jiangxi provincial government on Wednesday promised improvement, calling on local officials to "respect the dead, comfort the living and serve the masses" in promoting changes to burial practices.