The battle for land in Shanghai is entering a tumultuous new phase as the city faces the need to allocate more space for the dead amid soaring prices of burial sites.
A tomb site of less than one square metre in Shanghai now carries a price tag of as much as 50,000 yuan (HK$62,155) - more than double the average 22,500 yuan per square metre paid for a home in the city at the end of last year.
The soaring prices of burial sites come against a backdrop of tight land supply and have triggered mounting concerns over the local government's land policies, particularly among the city's senior citizens who face the prospect of having to provide for their burials.
A tomb site buying spree took place early this month during the Ching Ming festival - the traditional time for visiting the graves of ancestors.
"It seems that a jump in the price of a tomb turned out to be more frightening than a jump in housing prices," said Liu Jiancheng, a 60-year-old retired worker. "As long as we can afford to do so now, we are seriously considering buying a tomb. Otherwise we fear we may not be able to afford to die if the price keeps climbing."
Since 2010 the average price of a grave in Shanghai has surged by more than 50 per cent.
Meanwhile, the city government has been trying to rein in a soaring residential property market that has priced millions of people out of homes and left them venting their anger at officials. Many residents believe soaring tomb prices are a result of the red-hot property sector's ripple effect through the city's 40-odd cemeteries.
Shanghai's cemeteries cover a total land area of 7,500 mu (500 hectares) and about 80 per cent of them will run out of space to provide additional plots by 2015, according to Qiao Kuanyuan, a professor at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology.
"Additional land for cemeteries is increasingly needed to address the social problem," Qiao said. "The government needs to show a positive attitude to soothe people's concerns. After all, it's an important matter that everyone cares deeply about."
However, the Shanghai Funeral and Interment Trade Association, a government-backed industry consortium, has tried to downplay such concerns, with its chairman, Wang Hongjie, saying cemeteries could make better use of the remaining space for further developments.
In Shanghai, tomb sites cannot be traded. But Qiao said he could not rule out the possibility of illegal trade and speculation on tomb sites taking place.
The city is not alone in its battle to find more space for its cemeteries. In Beijing and Guangzhou people also worry that prices of graves will skyrocket in the coming years due to shrinking space at cemeteries.
The funeral authorities have helped fuel these concerns by calling - unsuccessfully - for residents to resort to burials at sea or multi-storey columbariums.
"It's not easy to change age-long custom, and the government must respect that," Qiao said. "But Shanghai people must learn that other options such as sea burials are also civilised."
The Ministry of Civil Affairs will begin revising existing regulations on funerals and burials in the second half of this year, added Qiao, who was invited to advise on the rule changes.
"China is in a transitional period," he said. "Rising affluence has resulted in higher demand for burial sites and the government has failed to handle the issue well. It has to do a better job by making people happy and comfortable."