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Shall we go for a jaunt in the cemetery, check out celebrity graves and catch a flick?

"AMID the spring drizzling rain, our thoughts are soaked in pain."

The famous lines by poet Du Mu in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) describe the Qingming Festival, or the tomb-sweeping day that falls today.

This is the once-a-year obligatory outing to visit family graves, pay respects to the deceased and make offerings to their spirits. People stay away during the rest of the year.

This is a day of reverence, solemnity and even awe in China's traditional "graveyard culture" where death and dying are ominous, fearful, not to be spoken of.

When leaving the cemetery, it's customary to go to crowded places, as a solitary individual could be accompanied by a spirit from the other world.

Though young people are less fearful than their parents, going to the cemetery is still a grave undertaking, not a walk in the park.

So it was a break with tradition when parklike Fushouyuan Cemetery in suburban Qingpu District applied late last year for scenic-site status from the city's tourism commission. Fushouyuan (literally Happiness Longevity Garden) says the process is underway and is making big plans to attract visitors throughout the year.

On hearing the news, quite a few residents were appalled and considered it jarring, disrespectful, downright terrible.

That a cemetery could become a tourist attraction - and investors plan a cinema and a museum - is a sign that China's funereal (meaning sad) culture could slowly be lightening up.

Fushouyuan, Shanghai's biggest cemetery, is designed artistically as an inviting park, with lawns, trees, streams, bridges, pavilions, ornamental gardens and statuary.

It's home to a lot of celebrity and public-figure spirits, including actresses Ruan Lingyu and Shangguan Yunzhu, former Shanghai Vice Mayor Pan Hannian and educationist Cai Yuanpei. Celebrities also include modern "martyrs," such as Wang Yang, a college student who tried to stop a thief and was fatally stabbed last year.

It's a destination in itself, especially for those who want to get away from the frenetic city. And it's near Zhujiajiao water town, another tourist attraction, so you can make a day of it.

Established in 1994, Fushouyuan cemetery features a line of Buddhist sculptures with folded hands that stands at the entrance. A melody that evokes murmuring sutras fills the air; it was composed by Dong Wei, widow of the famous artist Lu Meng.

This final resting place stands in sharp contrast to ordinary public cemeteries with row upon row of tombs, hardly places to linger, except to perform doleful duties on the Qingming Festival.

"Many political celebrities, famous actors, actresses, musicians and artists chose Fushouyuan cemetery as their afterlife home," says Yi Hua, executive general manager.

"Naturally their families have special requirements in designing the grave, including sculpture or some memorial objects to accompany the deceased," says Yi.

A special team designs and produces sculptures to order by clients, though the price is high.

But Fushouyuan also offers affordable afterlife homes for ordinary families on a budget. Urns can be buried under trees, flowerbeds or lawns or sealed into a wall. The lowest price for burial in an ornamental garden is 800 yuan (US$117).

Fushouyuan is projected to cover 800 mu (53 hectares), much of it greenery and preserved natural landscape.

"We want to display the artistic, cultural and natural resources at Fushouyuan Cemetery to more people," says Yi.

It is estimated that 400,000 people visited in 2007, 30 percent of them visitors from outside Shanghai.

In fact, the tranquil, artistic aura of the natural setting is a big lure for potential clients and casual visitors on an outing.

Wang Zhilan, a blue-collar worker in his 40s, went to Fushouyuan last weekend.

"I heard that many celebrities are buried there, so I was curious to visit their graves. And it's near Zhujiajiao, my family had a wonderful lunch at a small restaurant there afterward."

But not everyone favors the idea of a cemetery excursion like Wang and her family.

"It's incredible, disgraceful!" wails Wu Xiaoli, a 60-something retiree. "I can't imagine that our family grave is toured by some strangers who might disturb the peace by chatting.

"Peace and harmony are definitely what my deceased parents need. Opening this is a really, really bad idea!" she adds.

Wu expresses the traditional views about death.

"The Chinese people are afraid of anything related to death, not to mention the deceased," says history professor Gu Xiaoming at Fudan University. "Some old Chinese people dread facing death and many aged and dying people are shunned and discriminated against."

But death is actually part of life, like birth, love and marriage, he says. "Graveyards should not be viewed as places filled with terror, but places to connect with the spirits of our ancestors."

Gu has some reservations, however, about turning a public cemetery into a scenic tourist attraction.

"Just imagine if there were peddlers selling small items and souvenirs - it would be a horrible sight for both the living and the dead," he says.

Strong management and planning is required to ensure this doesn't happen, Gu says.

But there's already a blueprint for a bigger and better Fushouyuan, according to executive general manager Li.

"Now we are planning to build a cinema to screen old films, a museum for celebrity memorabilia we want to offer other tourist attractions," he says.

Before and after the Qingming Festival, discounted tickets are offered for the shuttle bus that runs from the Longhua Funeral Parlor to the cemetery.

The lower prices aim to discourage visits on the tomb-sweeping day itself when roads and cemeteries are crowded.

Fushouyuan's plans for making a cemetery visit a fun experience suggest vast revenue possibilities in operating a public cemetery.

Also catching the wave of possible cemetery tourism is the future Haigang Cemetery to be built near the East Sea in Nanhui District. Investors in the 500-mu (33 hectare) project include the Fushouyuan Group.

Haigang's marketing manager, surnamed Wang, says this cemetery tourism experience will be different from Fushouyuan.

"We emphasize the ecological environment and respect to the ancestors of the citizens in the neighborhood," says Wang.

Construction just began. According to Wang, the cemetery housing the ashes of many ancestors of Nanhui people was built last week.

"Due to the desirable geographical site, Haigang Cemetery has splendid natural scenery and the whole area will be well forested."

Clearly, some cemetery custodians hope to lighten up the funeral culture so that Tomb-Sweeping Day isn't the only magnet. And younger people are less superstitious about death than their parents.

But will Chinese people decide to get away from it all and go for a walk in the graveyard?

Address: 7270 Waiqingsong Highway, Qingpu District

Tel: 3982-0026

Admission: Free

"Clear Brightness" celebrates spring

Tomb-sweeping day is one of the few traditional Chinese holidays that follows the solar calendar, usually falling on April 4, 5, or 6.

Qingming literally means "clear brightness," indicating its origins as a celebration of spring. Like spring rituals in other cultures, tomb-sweeping day celebrates the rebirth of nature, marking the beginning of the planting season and other outdoor activities.

But with the erosion of time, this became a day to honor ancestors.

Today when Chinese people visit family graves, they usually pull weeds, tidy the tomb, and set out offerings of food and paper money for spending in the afterlife.

In folk religion, the spirits of the deceased look after the family in this life. Offerings of food and paper money keep them happy, thus the family prospers through good harvests and many children.

How to get there

By public transport

Route 1: Take the Huzhu Line on Dagu Road (starting point), get off at Qingpu Town, transfer to the Qingsong Line, get off at Fengjing Village stop.

Route 2: Take Metro Line 9, get off at Sheshan Hill, transfer to bus No. 91, get off at Forest Park, take Songqing Line to Fengjing Village stop.

By car

It's 45 minutes' drive from city center. Take Yan'an Elevated Road, then transfer to A9, get off at the Qingpu town exit.


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