The way coffins were seized is deplorable
Under a “zero burial” policy, officials in Jiangxi province have seized or destroyed coffins that many poor families have spent their lives saving up to buy. But officials cannot simply force people to abandon the rituals of respect for their dead by using cruel and barbaric tactics
The further the distance from the urban centre the stronger the survival of cultural tradition. Evidence of that is to be found in piles of damaged coffins in rural areas of the southeastern province of Jiangxi. Officials seized them from families in a campaign against burial of the dead aimed at preserving land resources. The brutal and insensitive way in which they have tried to enforce the use of cremation has stirred understandable anger and resentment among locals, with even state media describing it as “barbaric”.
Under a “zero burial” policy introduced about six months ago, officials have seized or destroyed coffins that many poor families have spent their lives saving up to buy.
Photographs and videos shared on social media have shown officials entering villages in the cities of Ganzhou, Jian and Yichun and removing coffins from people’s homes. Huge numbers were then piled up and smashed by excavators, as officials dragged away elderly residents who tried to save them by lying in them.
Attachment to the traditional rituals relating to death and respect for the deceased are not confined to remote regions. Take, for example, the limited response of Hongkongers to appeals for life-saving organ donations, despite education campaigns aimed at striking a balance with traditional beliefs about treatment of the dead.
Not so long ago, except in remote areas, there was little choice about accepting cremation but, as the economy grew and controls were relaxed, people who could afford it went back to burials.
The cremation policy may be good land-management practice. But patient education and understanding remains the most effective way of convincing people to modify traditional practices. Given that it touched on the final respects that Chinese pay to their ancestors, the aggressive approach of the Jiangxi authorities is to be deplored. They cannot simply force people to abandon the rituals of respect for their dead by using cruel and barbaric tactics. This is a complex question involving issues ranging from farmland conservation to traditions such as the belief that storing tailor-made coffins at home can bring longevity and good fortune. The authorities need to take them into consideration sympathetically and with respect.