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March 11, 2014

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More sea burials planned to meet rising demand

SEA burials might soon become a weekday feature as authorities consider new ways to meet the growing demand for the eco-friendly ceremonies.

The number of people applying to have their loved ones’ ashes scattered at sea has been growing by about 3 percent a year, Gao Jianhua, deputy director of the Funeral Services Center at the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau, said yesterday.

But with just two ferryboats making 20 trips a year, supply has been falling far below demand, he said, adding that applicants often have to wait for up to a year to secure a place.

Being made to wait that long can be very upsetting for the families, Gao said.

While the bureau is planning to add a further 12 trips to the schedule this year — which could help reduce waiting times to six months — far more are needed, he said.

“We would like the services to become much more frequent, but there are difficulties we have to overcome,” he said.

Though sea burials have been around in Shanghai only since 1991, the events are considered solemn affairs that merit proper arrangements and ceremony.

The two ferries used by the center carry up to 250 people per trip. Each funeral group can comprise up to six relatives, so the voyages generally involve upward of 40 burials. Once the ashes have been scattered, families return to Binhaiguyuan Cemetery where the names of their late loved ones are carved onto a memorial.

The idea of the eco-friendly service was introduced to Shanghai in response to dwindling supplies of land for traditional burials in the city. Since 1991, the ashes of 27,700 people have been scattered at sea.

The authorities have set a target for sea burials to account for 2 percent of all funerals by 2015. At the end of last year the figure was 1.95 percent.

Families that choose sea burials are entitled to a government incentive payment, which in 2012 was increased to 2,000 yuan (US$325) from 400 yuan. The fivefold increase also caused demand for the services to spike, Gao said.

The relatives of each deceased person receive 1,000 yuan in cash and a further 1,000 yuan  to cover the various costs of the service.

Finding boats to accommodate the funeral parties has also been a problem, Gao said.

Shanghai’s ferry business is in decline and many owners don’t want to get involved for reasons of superstition. Weather conditions and tides also have a major bearing, meaning just six months of the year are suitable for the services, he said.


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