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April 4, 2011

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Burning desires

TO make the afterlife comfortable, there's nothing too good for the dearly departed - villas, big cars, iPhone 4s, flat-screen TVs, even a high-class call girl - all made of paper to be burned during Qingming Festival. Lu Feiran lights the match.

A three-story red-brick townhouse with white trim, a roof terrace, purple curtains and embossed golden doors sounds like the perfect pad for the afterlife.

To ensure that the departed have luxurious digs and lifestyle, fine food, good liquor, the latest computer and wireless gadgets, lots of money and a VIP credit card, their devoted relatives send all the amenities and latest models to the next world.

This they accomplish by burning paper and cardboard amenities in rituals around the Qingming Festival, or the tomb-sweeping day, that falls tomorrow.

In fact, anything the deceased needed and fancied - an ayi, a chef, or a high-class call girl - can be fashioned of paper and cardboard. Unmarried or widowed women, too, can get a spouse (as well as fancy high-heel shoes and designer handbags).

And there's no need to go without a pet dog or cat in the spirit world. Of course, everyone gets piles of money every year. Now gold VIP cards are added for shopping in paradise.

All these (basics like houses, furnishings, transport) are usually burned in a ceremony around five weeks after a person dies. Then during the annual Qingming Festival, offerings of food and wine are made at tombs and paper money is also burned.

And if there's anything else that comes along, like a late-model BMW, iPad, iPhone 4, then the possessions of the departed are updated with a new fire.

Since some of these objects are large and unwieldy, difficult to lug around to cemeteries, they are usually burned near family homes or funeral parlors.

Everything is available online.

Quite a few brick-and-mortar stores sell these possessions - things one strived for in life, or only dreamed of, or did in fact possess.

On Xibaoxing Road near the Baoxing Funeral Parlor, small stores line half of the street, selling grave garments, urns for ashes and a wide selection of paper offerings.

Wang Shufen, 48, has been running Baoxing Wreath Wholesale Store with her husband for several years, but funeral wreaths are only a small part of the business. A big part is sale of paper comforts for the afterlife.

Samples are placed at the entrance, so that relatives can choose. Paper money is a must. A money package costs 5 yuan (43 US cents) - that's in real money - and includes renminbi (yuan), US dollars, Hong Kong dollars, euros, even a VIP credit card issued by Hell Bank.

"We need to catch up with the times," says Wang. "When the world of the living is moving forward, the world of the deceased should also be moving ahead."

These paper houses are in traditional Chinese architectural style, with upturned eaves, carved beams and colorfully painted rafters. The designs are all printed on cardboard.

The house is not merely a house, it's like a child's doll house. Looking through the windows, one sees a complete set of furniture, household appliances and entertainment, LCD TV screens and audio systems. This is the basic configuration.

In front of the house is a paper garden, with flowers and trees. A car is parked outside.

"We can also make a paper maid or a sex worker if you want," Wang says, smiling. "To do business, you need creativity, and that goes for the business of death."

The store stocks printed cardboard from factories, and Wang and her staff assembles them; it's easy with paper tabs. "It's just like primary school students' crafts," she says.

Apart from the houses, Wang also offers famous Maotai baijiu (liquor), Zhonghua (Chung Hwa) cigarettes, mahjong tiles and playing cards for poker games. Forever (Yong Jiu) bicycles are available, if the deceased was environmentally conscious, or if the BMW gets a flat tire.

"Basically we can satisfy all the demands of our customers," Wang says.

For years the government has suggested that people give up the traditional burning of paper offerings, but not many families take the advice. After all, the ancients were buried with their possessions.

"It's hard to fight against a tradition that has been passed on for thousands of years," says Wang Hongjie, secretary-general of the Shanghai Funeral and Interment Association.

In Wang's view, burning paper offerings is superstitious, dangerous and damages the environment by requiring trees to be cut down for paper; the burning pollutes the air.

"We have always been telling people to treat their parents better while they are still living, rather than burning a pile of waste paper after they pass away to seek their own mental consolation," he says. "But doing so seems to have become a necessary protocol rather than pure tradition."

Since most families observe this "protocol," those who do not burn offerings may be regarded as unfilial and indifferent.

As China becomes more materialistic, there's more to burn and more people get in the business of furnishing the afterlife.

Cost of death

Customers say the price of paper offerings has become exorbitant, like everything else these days.

For example, the market price of a house 1.5 to 1.7 meters high ranges from 80 to 120 yuan; but the cost price is only 30 to 40 yuan, according to Wang from the funeral association.

Still, no one in business is making a killing, he says, they just earn a basic living since competition is fierce.

The owner of another store on the street, Baoxing Funeral Service Store, says he can earn several thousand yuan a month, not unlike white-collar professionals. But rent is 2,000 yuan a month.

The 67-year-old owner, who identified himself only as Shao, says similar stores are opening and business is getting harder.

"As a matter of fact, not many customers come to buy the paper offerings in person," he says. "They order the products through a funeral agent who assists in all arrangements. It's part of a package deal."

Every store on the street has a funeral agent and the agent's skill determines the success of the store.

"The reputation of a funeral agent is built by word of mouth," Shao says. "If an agent is sociable, he has more business and makes more money."

The increasing number of competing stores and competing funeral agents causes some disorder in the industry.

"Some funeral agents collaborate with nurses or doctors in hospitals, to grab business as soon as, or even before, a patient passes away," Shao says.

"These immoral (and illegal) actions make more money," he adds, since they get a head start on the competition.

Shao's own son has been a funeral agent for 10 years and has never engaged in such practices, he says. "His business, of course, is not as good as others, but I promise that all the money we make is clean."

He says he hopes the government will do more to regulate the market, which will benefit both customers and legitimate sellers of funeral services.

Wang, from the funeral association, says it has opened a hotline so families can inquire about legitimate providers of funeral services.

The association has a list of proper and hygienic funeral parlors, which also arrange for paper offerings. Through the hotline, the association refers business to them.

"We hope that every family will call the hot line when they need the funeral service," Wang says.


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