No burial of the dead

They are killing themselves because there will be no cemeteries. They are killing themselves because they've lived believing they would die in a certain way.

From June 1, some of the dead in China will be cremated. No more digging of graves, preparing coffins, constructing tombs. As one report stated:

But in recent years local governments across the country have demolished tombs as part of a national campaign encouraging cremation, in an attempt to save on limited land resources. Government officials in Anqing, a city in the eastern province of Anhui, ordered that all locals who die after 1 June should be cremated, the Beijing News daily reported.

Although bulldozers have been working for a while now, the diktat came only in April. In May, six people committed suicide. The media has attributed it to old age, and not necessarily connected with the loss of burial space, but can we discount the discomfort of doing away with a cultural tradition that has to do with the personal?

Shi has been quoted as saying, "I've had a hard life, and when I'm dead I'd like to sleep somewhere protected from the rain – inside a coffin."

It is heartbreaking. Each society has its rituals for the dead; it is the final journey. A range of experiences and emotional bonds are silenced forever. Parting does take place in other ways, too, and is probably worse, for you cannot reach out although the person is within reach. Yet, it gives you the possibility of an open end, a journey where the road stretches so far you can see nothing beyond a point.

In death, you can see the end. Think about these examples mentioned:

• One 91-year-old woman named Wu Zhengde hanged herself after learning of the new regulations.

• Zheng Shifang, 83, killed herself after officials sawed her coffin in half in front of her.

• A 68-year-old woman killed herself by jumping into a well.

• Others drank poison.

It is easy to be pragmatic and discuss the genuine shortage of space. Should it not have been given a decent timeframe? These people and their families probably invested in the funeral rites and the coffins. China is a deeply traditional society. Cremation, unless you are brought up in such a culture, has several connotations.

While fire is pure for some, for others it is a destroyer. Very likely, the authorities would have an electric crematorium. It is practical and has no residue to deal with, unlike the pyre which takes hours and you wait until the loved one is completely consumed by flames. It is like a slow death again, and in some ways probably helps in purging grief. For a traditional people, an urn with ashes might seem incomplete.

Zoroastrians leave their dead isolated in the Tower of Silence for vultures to peck at the remains. It is to ensure that the human form in rigor mortis does not make the elements impure.

Burial too has different modalities. Muslims are not supposed to use any coffin; the idea is that the body must meet the earth as it is. Only a white cloth covers the deceased. Some people have taken to adding marble slabs over the grave, which is against the spirit of austerity.

Other cultures use different kinds of coffins — the type of wood, the shape, the trimmings. The music that accompanies the cortege is an ode and a dirge. The final nail is the curtain call.

Then there are those not claimed by anybody. Their lives, and their deaths, remain obscure. They are taken away in municipal vans. I am aware of the genuine need for organ donation or for bodies to be used for experimentation.

Then there are the mass graves of dissenters killed by the governments, their bodies deliberately defaced, all stamped with one fate.

It is impossible to ignore the huge emotive nature of loss, in any case. When Egyptians mummified bodies and buried things along with the dead, it was an affirmation that it was not final and the soul would return to the body, for which it had to be recognisable.

All such symbolism is about rejuvenation. The ashes are dipped into a holy river and flow; they do not drown. The buried underground may waste away, but the shrubbery and incense sticks bear witness to life.

And death is nothing but a continuum of life.

© Farzana Versey

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