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April 6, 2010

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Cemetery space is dying out

IF it seemed crowded at the cemetery over the tomb-sweeping time during the Qingming Festival holiday, just wait a while.

About 100,000 people die in Shanghai each year - so many people that available land for tombs may be used up within 10 years, officials said yesterday.

"About 80 percent of Shanghai people choose to be buried in land now," said Lu Chunling, director of the funeral management division of Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau.

Almost three-quarters of the city's available cemetery land is already occupied, leaving 1 million to 1.33 million square meters of land left for setting up tombs.

Every year another 130,000 square meters are used up for new tombs, according to the bureau.

At that rate, there's no more than 10 years worth of land left to use.

And it is no easy matter to increase the space that can be used for tombs, officials said. Cemeteries cannot expand their land without approval from the government, and the procedure for an application is long and complicated.

Officials wouldn't say exactly how long it takes for a land application to be completed, but indicated it could be quite a few years.

Would-be cemeteries have to compete with many other uses for land in the rapidly urbanizing city: housing projects, industrial sites, high-tech areas.

With space at a premium, the funeral industry is urging people to build smaller tombs. It's even urging people to consider some alternatives to burials altogether.

But neither is an easy sell. The Shanghai Funeral and Interment Trade Association said the traditional interment culture in China remains strong, with most people believing that choosing a magnificent grave for their parents shows filial piety.

"We always remind people to treat their parents better when they are alive rather than after they died," said Wang Hongjie, director of association. "But it's hard to fight against the tradition."

Local cemeteries are building smaller tombs, trying to squeeze more tombs into their remaining space. Whereas a tomb for a couple used to be 1 to 3 square meters, those now being developed occupy only 0.5 to 0.8 square meters.

Cemeteries are also thinking of new ways of interment, but failing to gain much interest.

The only new interment style being accepted by people is the sea funeral, a method that saves money for the grieving as well as land for the cemetery-owners.

The number of instances of scattering relatives' ashes in the sea is increasing by 10 percent every year - up to 2,000 urns last year.


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