Chinese undertakers brave fear, stigma to honor dead

Thu Jun 7, 2012 3:54pm EDT
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By Royston Chan

JIAXING, China (Reuters) - Zeng Liangliang faced strong opposition from his family when he first told them his plans for a job, despite being guaranteed employment with a good salary right out of school.

He intends to be an undertaker, a good job in many places, but one that is generally shunned in China due to traditions that make death unmentionable and lead many to steer clear of those working in the industry, fearing they carry bad luck.

But Zeng is one of a new breed of young and confident Chinese undertakers fighting centuries-old taboos to gain social acceptance for their profession, saying they help the deceased and their families make their final parting with respect.

"At first, my dad was very against me going into such a profession. He did not understand why I would want to take up such a job, and did not support me at all," said the 22-year-old student in Jiaxing, eastern Zhejiang province.

"We are young people and we think differently," he added. "I feel that undertakers were not too respectful in the past to the deceased. So through our services, we hope that the deceased leave this world in a more dignified way."

Superstitions regarding death remain so strong that many Chinese avoid the number 4, which has a similar sound to the word for death. And speaking of the topic is taboo.

But as a business, it is going strong. China's annual report on funeral services listed the industry as worth 200 billion yuan ($31 billion) a year, and it is seen as one of the top 10 most profitable businesses in the country.

There are four main technical colleges across the country offering studies in funeral services. The Changsha Social Work College in China's central Hunan province is the pioneer, having started in 1995 to standardize practices in the industry.   Continued...

A student files the nails of a mannequin during an undertaker service class at the Tianquanjiajing Funeral Service school in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province May 29, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Barria