Burial Prices a Grave Issue

With the rising cost of burial plots, residents of China’s capital joke that they cannot afford to die.
2012-04-03
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A woman pays her respects at Babaoshan Cemetery in Beijing, April 4, 2011.
AFP

As China prepares for the annual Tomb-Sweeping Festival on Thursday, burial prices for residents of the capital Beijing have become a grave issue.

Many Beijingers are struggling with the rapidly rising cost of burial lots, residents say, as they prepare to pay their respects where the ashes of their loved ones are buried during the annual national holiday.

According to the Beijing News newspaper, grave prices in Beijing have risen 15 times in the past nine years, making funeral costs one of the most significant expenditures for many.

“These days the cost of living is unaffordable, and the cost of death is even more expensive. Maybe we’ll have to have our ashes thrown out after death,” a Beijing resident surnamed Sun said in an interview Tuesday.

“If you want to buy a grave lot, you have to pay 200,000 yuan (U.S. $31,766),” she complained. 

According to official statistics, the average annual salary of an urban Beijing employee in 2011 was 60,000 yuan (U.S. $9,530).

Another Beijing resident, surnamed Dong, said grave prices are now even higher than housing prices.

“Usually a burial plot of about 50 square meters (540 square feet) will cost a half or a full million yuan (U.S. $80,000 to $160,000). Recently a friend of my brother’s wanted to buy a grave lot for his parents and was startled by the sky-high price. Then he gave up,” said Dong.

Beijing, the third largest of China’s municipalities, is also one of its fastest-growing.

According to the national census, the city’s population of permanent residents, not counting migrant workers, grew by 44 percent to 19.6 million from 2000-2010.

As the city grows, it has expanded into surrounding suburbs, driving nearby land values ever higher.

Prime real estate

The rising grave prices have convinced many real estate agents to change their focus from serving the living to serving the dead.

One former real estate agent, An, has now switched to selling burial lots. 

“Selling graves makes more money than selling houses,” An said.

He said the reason for the rising grave prices is the monopoly of land by some farmers.

“The farmers have land and uncultivated hills in remote places. They allot some of that to graveyards and put it on the market,” he said.

“In strict terms, this is illegal because arable land enjoys protection from the government. You should not be able to change the usage of the land. Or, if you turn the farmland into a graveyard, you should pay more taxes, but they don’t,” An said.

Facing this reality of rising prices, some scholars are calling for a change in attitude toward traditional burial and for the use of alternative methods.

One Beijing resident surnamed Li said that instead of burying ashes in traditional graves, some are now advocating “tree burials.”

“You put the ashes into a biodegradable box and bury the box in a pit, and then plant a tree on top of the box. The box will gradually melt down into the earth. This is a relevantly inexpensive choice for many,” she said.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin service. Translated by Ping Chen. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.