Coffins sold to timber mills in eastern China to be made into furniture after ban on burials

As campaign urging people to cremate their dead continues, officials in the northeast draw flak over crackdown on paper money and offerings

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 August, 2018, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, 12:47am

Coffins are being sold to timber mills to be processed and turned into furniture in eastern China after a ban on burials was introduced, local media reports.

The “zero burials” policy came in about six months ago in some provinces, with people instead urged to cremate their dead in order to save land.

But coffins have since turned up in large numbers in the city of Suqian, Jiangsu after they were sold to traders to be broken down and recycled, according to a report by local television broadcaster Nanjing Zero Distance last week. The coffins had come from another city, the report said.

Coffins smashed, seized, exhumed in China as province bans burials to save land

The wooden coffins – some in traditional black and red and cut into pieces – were pictured piled high at an unknown location in a Suqian town. A furniture industry insider told the broadcaster that the coffins had been bought at very low prices over the past two months but he would not say which city they had come from.

A factory owner in the same town said the coffins were being taken apart and sold to local timber mills to be processed – so that they were no longer recognisable as coffins – and would be made into furniture.

Since the policy was introduced, owning or making a coffin has been banned, and officials in many areas have spent the past six months seizing or destroying them.

Intended as a way to save land and to discourage extravagant burial ceremonies, authorities in many cities in nearby Jiangxi province have set a deadline of September for becoming “cremation only”.

The way coffins were seized is deplorable

There, thousands of coffins have been smashed, seized and even exhumed, causing anger and resentment among locals – some of whom had spent their entire lives saving up to buy them. The campaign has even drawn criticism from state media, with Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily slamming the policy as a “rough and even barbaric move”.

Meanwhile, in northeastern Heilongjiang province, officials in Harbin have been criticised for disrespecting another funeral tradition after they seized thousands of boxes of paper money to prevent them from being burnt on the streets.

The city’s Market Supervision and Administration Bureau issued a notice on August 14 saying it would crack down on small shops and markets that produce, process and sell “paper money, paper figures, paper horses and other feudal funeral sacrifice items”.

It referred to a series of regulations going back to 2009 that banned the sale of paper money and public burning of offerings for the dead to promote a “civilised, healthy, environmental, safe and harmonious funeral tradition”.

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In China, it is customary to burn paper money and other offerings – from paper replicas of electronics to luxury cars – for deceased relatives, who will receive them in the afterlife, during the seventh month of the lunar calendar. The most important date is the 15th of that month, known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, or Zhongyuan Jie, when it is said that ancestors return to visit their families. It falls on August 25 this year, which is when the crackdown is due to end.

One shop owner in Harbin selling funeral items said he no longer sold paper money and other paper offerings. “The government has been cracking down on those,” he said, adding that other vendors may still have some.

The bureau has carried out similar campaigns in the past year around Lunar New Year in February and Ching Ming Festival, when Chinese sweep their ancestors’ graves, in March and April, according to its website. Calls to the bureau on Monday went unanswered.

But the policy has been met with strong criticism online.

“Why don’t they just call off the festival and be done with it?” one person wrote on social media.

Another said: “This is part of our belief system, it shows our affection for our deceased relatives – how is this suddenly illegal? Why can’t they do something useful instead?”

Zhou Kai, a lawyer at Nanjing law firm Jiangsu Tianzhe, said although the Harbin government might have good intentions, the crackdown was not appropriate because such rituals were not illegal.

He added that it was a traditional practice and if the regulations were too rigid they might not be effective.

“The best way might be to encourage and propose a gradual way to resolve this issue, such as setting up certain zones for these activities,” he said.