Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Cremation Tournament and Suicides

We recently posted about the rise of cremation rates in the United States. Earlier this week the Chinese government hosted an unusual competition. More than 50 of the country's best battled it out to be crowned the country's top cremator.

It was the first ever national contest for cremation workers, but its very existence cuts to the heart of Chinese ideas about death, land use and a desire to instill national pride in a stigmatized vocation. In a country where 10 million people die annually, disposing of bodies is a political and practical issue. BBC covered the story.

Cremation is more common in China than in the U.S. A majority of Chinese, just over 50 percent, are cremated after death and that number is going up. This is largely for practical reasons. Roughly 10,000,000 people die in China annually, meaning graveyards would take up vast amount of land the government wishes to use for agricultural projects. Traditional burial has also fallen out of favor in China for the same reason it has in the U.S. With more people living in cities, it’s impractical and seemingly purposeless for families to bury their dead in fields far from their apartments. With that said, in China, cremation is more it’s associated with communism. Under Mao Tse-Tung, cremation was periodically and locally mandated. For many Buddhists, who traditionally burn bodies, this didn’t represent a religious problem, but ancestor worship, a cultural holdover from Confucianism, dictates that corpses should be left alone lest familial connections be broken. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that elderly people in some Chinese provinces were killing themselves because they feared cremation mandates would be enacted.

This mandate caused fear for others as well. In November 2014 two officials were arrested after they allegedly bought corpses from grave robbers to meet government cremation targets. They said they were trying to ensure government quotas on the number of cremations every month were met.

So why a cremation competition?  With unsavory views on cremation, you can imagine how those who work in the industry are viewed.The civil affairs ministry said in a statement that the competition "enhanced society's understanding of the cremation industry... and gave a strong push to the building of the cremation worker corps." A ministry spokesman said cremation workers faced strong social stigma as well as the potential health risk of handling bodies with infectious diseases.

"What they're still most worried about is society's prejudice," he told Xinhua, adding that there were cases of cremation workers hiding their occupation when filling out school forms as they were worried their children would face discrimination. This tournament was a way to hopefully boost the profile morale of cremation workers.

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