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.
According to the school, there are more than 1,500 students across the country studying to become undertakers each year, with the field increasingly popular among those looking for a guaranteed job after graduation.
Courses in funeral services take three years to complete, with students learning basic skills while being encouraged to take on internships in the thousands of funeral homes across the country during their holidays.
The Changsha college said the average pay for a graduate undertaker ranges between 4,000 to 5,000 yuan ($628 to $785) a month in first-tier Chinese cities, a slightly better starting pay than that of the average graduate, and they can almost be sure to get a job immediately.
Through skills gained in their studies, which include embalming, funeral make-up and rituals, Zeng feels the new breed of undertaker shows more respect for the deceased by taking greater care to prepare the body.
A typical, simple undertaker service in China has long included things such as washing the body, as well as providing funeral make-up and dressing it.
But now the cleansing can include things similar to a spa treatment for the body, as well as gently massaging it before applying cosmetics - services that have been popular in Taiwan and Japan for years.
Newer undertakers also take extra efforts with cosmetics, hoping to make the deceased look much as they did in life. Older undertakers, Zeng feels, often leave the body looking unnatural.
But the training is not without obstacles. Another student, Cui Wenchao, spoke for many when she said she was overwhelmed the first time she touched a dead body despite practicing the techniques on mannequins.
“It was cold when I felt it. I did not expect it to be that cold and I had not prepared mentally,” the 22-year-old said.
“It was not a feeling of fear but the kind of emotion associated with the fact that the passing of a life is actually like this.”
Despite their dedication, undertakers still face strong social stigma. Many suffer pressure from friends and family to change their job while others fail to find a marriage partner.
Change will be slow, but people in the industry said they hoped the influx of younger undertakers would help change the general mindset.
“Traditionally, older folks would say this profession is only for those people who are not married, have no children, and have no choice,” said Taiwanese instructor Lin Leijie.
“We hope that more young people take up the profession and show others there is nothing to fear.”
Reporting by Royston Chan; editing by Elaine Lies and Bob Tourtellotte