Bodies left in homes as funeral parlors seek extra staff amid COVID-19 onslaught

Shanghai funeral homes can't cope with demand for their services, repeating a pattern confirmed in Beijing
By Gu Ting for RFA Mandarin, Lee Yuk Yue and Chingman for RFA Cantonese
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Bodies left in homes as funeral parlors seek extra staff amid COVID-19 onslaught People throng Jinan Funeral Home in Jinan, Shandong province, China, in this screenshot obtained from a social media video released on Monday, Dec. 26, 2022.
Credit: Reuters

UPDATED at 1:38 pm EST on Jan. 2.

Bodies were piling up in people's homes awaiting cremation across China, as funeral homes recruited more staff to transport the dead amid a nationwide outbreak of COVID-19 since the loosening of pandemic restrictions.

Mortuaries and funeral homes in Beijing have been overwhelmed in recent days with a weeks-long backlog of bodies awaiting cremation.

There was anecdotal evidence on Tuesday that a similar bottleneck is occurring across the country.

"The most terrifying thing is how many dead bodies are being left in their homes for a day, two days, three days, even six or seven days," a Shanghai-based business owner surnamed Fang said.

She said her friend’s cousin died at home. "He was already dead by the time the ambulance came, so they had to leave him there."

"You have to line up at the crematoriums to get your number [to book a slot], and there are a lot of people in queues there at 4.30 a.m.," Fang said. "I called the crematorium the next day and they said I wouldn't even be able to get a number for two days; that it had been suspended."

"A lot of dead bodies are being left in their homes for four, five, even seven days," she said.

250 million people may be infected

China's National Health Commission has announced it will no longer be publishing daily COVID-19 infection figures, as the virus rips through the population with the abandonment of rolling lockdowns, mass tracking of citizens and compulsory testing. 

A leaked ministerial document dated Dec. 20 -- which analysts said was likely the result of computer modeling in the absence of widespread testing -- said around 250 million people may now be infected with COVID-19 following the lifting of control measures. 

Nobody in Beijing is currently allowed to transport the remains of their dead relatives to funeral homes, but must wait for them to be picked up by funeral home staff, the official told RFA on condition of anonymity on Monday.

Medical workers in protective suits tend to patients at the fever clinic of China-Japan Friendship hospital in Beijing, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022. Credit: China Daily via Reuters

It was unclear whether similar restrictions are in place in Shanghai, but funeral parlors appear to be recruiting extra staff amid the rush, with an online advertisement from the Binhai Ancient Garden cemetery in Shanghai's Fengxian district posted to WeChat on Monday seeking men with drivers' licenses to pick up dead bodies and collect them from people’s homes.

Meanwhile, reports were emerging that funeral homes were looking to dampen public panic over the current wave of deaths, and dissociate it in people's minds from COVID-19.

A photograph from a funeral parlor uploaded to social media showed a notice at reception calling on family members of the deceased to "promise that the deceased did not die due to pneumonia from COVID-19."

"I take full responsibility for any concealment of information," the families are expected to pledge, according to the notice.

Clamping down on Chinese travelers

The loosening of travel restrictions prompted a rush to buy flights out of the country, with search volumes for outbound flights on the travel platform Qunar rising seven-fold just 15 minutes after the news was announced, and by more than eight-fold on the Tongcheng travel site.

The most popular destinations searched for on Ctrip within 30 minutes of the announcement were Bangkok, Tokyo, Seoul, Los Angeles and Singapore, while searches for Macau, other mainland Chinese destinations, Hong Kong, the United States, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and the U.K. were also rising rapidly, according to a brief survey by Radio Free Asia.

Japan announced on Tuesday it would tighten inbound quarantine requirements for passengers arriving from China, requiring them to isolate for seven days upon entering the country, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported.

Travelers walk with their luggage at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022. Credit: Reuters

The move came after the Italian government announced that Chinese passengers entering Milan Malpensa Airport from Dec. 24 must undergo compulsory PCR testing on landing, while India and South Korea have also tightened restrictions for travelers from mainland China.

Passengers arriving at Incheon International Airport will be subject to temperature scans, with compulsory PCR testing for anyone with a temperature of more than 37.3 C and their companions.

Inside Tibet

Tibetans inside Tibet told RFA that COVID cases are spreading among young and old there, too, and that hospitals are overwhelmed with the number of people seeking vaccinations.

"They are mostly experiencing high fever, severe cough and body aches," one source said. "These COVID patients are denied proper treatment in the hospital and due to the overwhelming number of people trying to get Covid vaccination, the hospitals are running out of vaccines."

Many Tibetans inside Tibet cannot afford to buy Covid testing kits, so they are not able to verify if they are COVID positive or not, although many believe they do.

A video shared on social media by a Tibetan netizen from Qinghai shows a person who is sick with body aches that feels like they are being poisoned, thirst and dry lips.

“Due to rising covid cases, the hospitals are overwhelmed and it's difficult to even obtain medicines from pharmacies," another source in Tibet said. "Many schools in Qinghai are temporarily closed for now as Covid is spreading so rapidly. Almost half of the students in an elementary school in Qinghai are sick and staying home. And there are also some families where all members are sick which has caused lots of concern and suffering”. 

But another source in Tibet aid that Chinese authorities have allowed many schools in the region to open. "Even public places and monasteries are opening up to the public," the source said, even as "many people are suffering from severe cold and flu and lack of medication and proper treatment."

Celebrity deaths

A number of high-profile celebrities have died in recent days, with their deaths attributed to causes other than COVID-19, including 27-year-old curling athlete Wang Yibo.

Keyword searches for Wang Yibo had hit 370 million views on the social platform Sina Weibo after his death was reported in the early hours of Dec. 25, with media reports attributing it to "encephalitis."

An official surnamed Ge from the Hebei provincial disease control and prevention agency department said the authorities have "downgraded" COVID-19 in a bid to boost economic activity.

"If the [zero-COVID] policy continued, the cost would be very high and it would drag down the entire national economy," the official said. "So we have to downgrade COVID-19, then we can change the policy, so as to resume economic activity."

Zhang Liang, a doctor in the northern city of Shijiazhuang said medical staff are no longer referring to "pneumonia" from COVID-19 in medical charts, only to "infection with COVID-19."

"Maybe 80 or 90 percent of people are infected right now in the north," Zhang said. "Most people have severe upper respiratory tract infection, although it varies from person to person, so it's more accurate to call it an infection [rather than pneumonia]."

Retired national badminton coach Wang Wenjiao also died in Beijing on Dec. 25 "due to illness" at the age of 89, while literary figures Shi Wenxi, mother of movie star Ge You, also died at the age of 94.

"I knew [Shi Wenxi]," political journalist Gao Yu told Radio Free Asia. "She was a very elegant lady who used to be my editor."

Gao said the recent deaths of retired professors, scholars and cultural figures was likely due to a lack of available treatment during the current COVID-19 wave.

"They have completely repeated the mistakes made in Wuhan here in Beijing this time around," Gao said. "They have been covering up the virus, and hospitals don't even have antipyretics.”

A Beijing-based Communist Party official with responsibility for law enforcement told Radio Free Asia last week that officials were seeking to cover up the extent of the outbreak and the number of deaths. 

"The manufacturers haven't been making them for the past three years, because they've had no way to sell them [under the former restrictions and lockdowns of the zero-COVID policy], which has led to high numbers of deaths at the current time," she said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

This story has been updated to correct identification of Wang Yibo as curling athlete, not actor, in 26th paragraph.

to add material about situation in Tibet.


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Dec 31, 2022 04:19 AM

Hi, you made a mistake in your article. Actor and motorcyclist Wang Yibo is alive. It was an athlete with the same name who died. Feel free to check actor Wang Yibo's account on Chinese social media Weibo to get a proof that he is still alive. Please correct you mistake and next time be better with fact checking. Thank you