Elderly villagers in rural areas of Anqing city in Anhui province turned to suicide after learning of a government plan to seize coffins they wanted as their final resting place, their relatives have told mainland media.
"My coffin keeps me going," Pan Xiuying, an 88-year-old resident, was quoted by The Beijing News as saying.
In the eyes of another resident, Shi Xuewen, 84, coffins are the final "house".
"When villagers die, they want to sleep in a wind and water-proof house. That is what a coffin means to villagers."
The local government has introduced a reform to favour cremations over burials, upsetting some elderly residents. According to an order issued on March 25, existing coffins must be surrendered to authorities.
There have been a string of suicides in other villages in Anqing, with elderly residents taking their own lives ahead of the adoption of the measure.
In early April, Zhu Ziyu, leader of a villager group went to a village committee meeting, where he reportedly received orders to register all coffins house by house.
"It's not up to villagers whether to keep or turn in the coffin; rather the order was if they choose to keep the coffin, then smash it right away. If they do not wish to keep it, the village committee [will] help remove it," Zhu said.
On April 18, the day authorities began going house to house to register coffins, 81-year-old Jiang Xiuhua hanged herself from a tree in her backyard. Jiang's grandson told The Beijing News Jiang left a note saying her coffin had been ready for 10 years.
Twenty kilometres away from Pan lived 91-year-old Wu Zhengde in Xindian village. Wu hanged himself on May 6, an hour after he heard the news that his coffin would be taken away. A week later 97-year-old Wu Xiuli died after going on a hunger strike.
"If not for the funeral reform, [I believe] my father could have lived past 100 years old," Wu's son said.
A day after Wu's death, 81-year-old Zhang Wenying hanged herself after hearing of the cremation order, according to her daughter-in-law.
The local government has denied any link between the rule change and the deaths.
Gan Zhen, the director of the Anqing propaganda department, said that based on their information, there was no direct relation between elders committing suicide and funeral reform.
"In such a big country like China, it's a common thing for elders to grow old, fall ill and die," Gan said.
On Sunday, the chief of Xindian village, Yang Wansheng, said that some of the residents did not fully grasp the policy and thought it would make them a burden on their families, so they chose to commit suicide, the News reported.
Not everyone in the area is opposed to cremation or the rule change. A villager named Wu Dawang said most young adults and middle-aged people had no preference when it came to burial or cremation, but elderly residents had been preparing coffins for decades.
"Can we have a flexible policy or give the elders some time to digest this?" Wu's son said.
Wu Jianqiang, chief of the propaganda department in Tongcheng, a county-level city in Anhui, told The Beijing News he thought the new rule was harsh and rigid. Wu said officials did "consider conducting burials based on the person's age but the idea was rejected".