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CHINESE people are conservative about death and working in a funeral parlor or cemetery sends chills up many spines. But the economic crisis has sent droves of job hunters knocking on death's door. Lu Feiran reports.

Some of the most talented makeup artists work their magic on the dearly departed, so they look their best before leaving this world. Their work is demanding, fast-paced and requires considerable skill, but they are under-appreciated.

Conservative attitudes toward death long have made working in a funeral parlor, especially touching bodies, or working in cemeteries among the least desirable, lowest-status jobs. Over the years, some people have felt like pariahs and some still won't disclose their occupations.

But today (as always), working in the funeral industry is definitely secure and it could be a job for life. Security is important in these times. There's even a scarcity of workers in the expanding industry.

The economic downturn and ferocious job competition have made work in a funeral parlor ?? from doing hair and makeup to handling arrangements and doing office work ?? sought-after as never before.

A recent city job fair for the funeral industry attracted hundreds of fresh college grads, potential white collars who once would never have dreamed of such work, and whose families would never have permitted it for their precious child. Few were majors in funeral services. Shanghai colleges do not offer such majors.

Although the working environment and pay have been improving in recent years, those who perform tasks requiring them to touch the departed still say they need more respect.

Lin Shuchun, 58, has been working in the funeral industry for nearly 20 years. He is one of the best "makeup workers" who apply the finishing hair and cosmetic touches to make the deceased look their best, as though they are asleep.

The white-coated, gloved and masked employees work in a brightly lighted, chilly chamber and work on bodies in coffins, only the faces exposed.

In 2006, Lin won the Golden Award of the Shanghai Funeral and Interment Center for his work at the Baoxing Funeral Parlor in Hongkou District.

Some two decades back, Lin needed a job and the funeral parlor was recruiting.

"I was unemployed then, the economic condition was tough in the family, so I wanted to try my luck," he tells Shanghai Daily.

He studied freezing, makeup and other cosmetic skills.

At first, no one in the family, including his wife, could accept his line of work. So he deceived them, saying he only did office and other work that did not require him to touch corpses. He was still shunned by people around him because his work was linked to death, he says.

"At that time, both my next-door neighbor, an old lady, and I raised gold fish at home and I would usually buy fish feed for her," Lin says sadly. "Later she was diagnosed of cancer. Then her son came to me, telling me not to cross his mother's doorstep again, as if I were going to take her to meet death."

In addition to the discrimination, the work itself was stressful, especially as the makeup workroom was adjacent to the funeral hall where mourners visited. That was before the funeral home expanded in 2001.

"In those days, I had to listen to dozens of funeral songs a day," says Lin. "Every night, as I lay in bed, the music still lingered in my head, and the faces of the dead kept appearing before my eyes. I was frightened."

Each makeup worker at Lin's funeral home must handle more than 20 corpses every day, from changing clothing to fixing hair and applying makeup. They don't have fixed weekends and overtime is common. When it's busy, they spend the night on cots in the workroom.

For those who die naturally, each case only requires around 20 minutes, says Lin. Those who died accidentally or violently are much more difficult to make presentable.

If parts of the face or body are missing or damaged, they must be restored with modeling clay or wax. Sometimes a photo of the dead is the only reference.

"Sometimes the family are hard to please," says Lin. "They are not satisfied even when we do our best. I understand their feelings, but it's just reality. Reality is always crueler than expectation."

Several years into the job, Lin was given rare encouragement.

"Once I had a fever and was sent to the hospital from work. The doctor who treated me asked about my job and then said my work was sacred and glorious. I was touched."

In recent years the young workers who enter the industry have much stronger nerves than he did, says Lin. "Even young girls are quite brave."

Almost all the newcomers are college graduates who majored in funeral service. As no Shanghai college offers that major, most workers are from out of town.

The Baoxing Funeral Parlor in Hongkou District has an all-girl makeup team called The Phoenix. It once had seven members, now it's down to four.

"When women got pregnant, they were assigned different duties," says Wang Fan, 27, a Phoenix. They were shifted both for their physical health and because it's considered bad luck for a pregnant woman to come in contact with the dead.

Wang graduated from the Changsha Social Work College in Hunan Province and has been working at funeral parlor for four years.

"I chose the funeral service major because I believed it would be easy to find a job after graduation," says Wang, who comes from Tianjin. "And I think the work is rather interesting."

She says she isn't scared by the work. "As I chose the major, I had a long time to train my nerves," she says with a faint smile.

Wang plans to marry in May. Her fiance is an employee at the same funeral home.

"Most of the women here will find their partner within the industry," says Wang.

Outside the workplace, Wang is just like other women of her age. She's rather pretty, loves fashion, buying frocks and drinking tea with her friends on her days off.

"We talk about almost everything, but not my work," says Wang, whose friends know where she works. "Some of them wouldn't feel comfortable about it."

Wang and others say there's a common misconception outside the funeral industry that its workers are well paid, perhaps as much as 100,000 (US$14,630) a year, to make up for their loss of social status.

The truth, however, is that new graduates earn only around 1,280 yuan a month at the Baoxing Funeral Parlor, far less than ordinary white-collar workers, she says.

"The salary began to rise two years later," says Wang.

The 1,280-yuan salary itself was an improvement and a result of salary system reform, says Wang. Workers who arrived before Wang only earned 800 yuan a month for 10 years in the 1990s.

The average salary for new graduates in Shanghai is 2,700 yuan.

Old workers like Lin have a yearly income of 80,000 yuan, far lower than many people's expectations. "People just take for granted that we are well-paid," he says.

What really improved was the working environment. Now they have a large workroom with a good air-conditioning system, so they no longer smell formalin and other things.

In the meantime, attitudes toward work in the funeral industry have also changed somewhat.

"Now my family doesn't say much about my work," Lin says jokingly. "Maybe they think my work is stable and won't be affected by the global financial crisis."

Faced by the tight job market, some college graduates in non-funeral majors apply for jobs in cemeteries and funeral parlors.

The Shanghai Yishan Funeral Parlor offered two positions in makeup and other body care ?? 50 women students under the age of 35 applied. It pays 3,000 yuan a month.

"I bet I'll be frightened at first, but I'll get used to it after some time," says an applicant named Gao Yun, a public relations major. She will graduate in June from the East China Normal University.

Gao, who had studied makeup for a year, says she thought long and hard before deciding to apply for the job.

"After all, it's stable and well paid," she tells Shanghai Daily. "I know it looks better to be a white-collar worker, but it's too hard to find a job now."

Gao says she knows that if she gets the job, it will be hard to later find other work as, according to Chinese tradition, it's inauspicious to work in places related to death.

"I think it's okay to take this as a life-time career," she says. "In fact, I've always longed for a quiet and stable life."

The Yishan Funeral Parlor says it's only recruiting women at this time as many families of deceased women insist that only females touch the body.

"So we wanted to form a female group to meet clients' need," says Li Xiangcheng, an official with the parlor.

The popularity of the recent funeral job fair demonstrates just how bad the job market is for new graduates, as well as changing attitudes toward the industry, says Wang Hongjie, director of the Shanghai Funeral Trade Association.

"In fact," he says, "the development of the funeral industry has caused a shortage of personnel."


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