A Grave Crisis in China

A Grave Crisis in China

People commemorate the deceased to mark the Qingming Festival, aka the "Tomb-Sweeping Day," at the Anling Cemetery on April 3, 2009, in Beijing, China. The festival is a traditional time when people pay their respects to the deceased and ancestors, involving cleaning and repairing tombs and sacrifice activities.

SourceGuang Niu/Getty Images

Why you should care

Because not everything stays buried.

In a land teeming with 1.3 billion people, space is hard to come by. In China, skyscrapers materialize in seconds and cities spring up like rabbits. Even death is no escape from the heated turf wars — right this second, the government is eyeing your grandmother’s final resting place as prime real estate.

According to a history project out of Stanford University called Grave Reform in Modern China,

In the past 15 years, China moved around 15 million graves.

The scale is unprecedented, says Tom Mullaney, a professor of history at Stanford. Mullaney and his team are trying to chronicle each and every grave relocation in China, toilsome work in a country of overnight change and lackadaisical record-keeping. So far, he’s scanned through millions of notices demanding families relocate the remains of their loved ones. If the body isn’t moved in time, the government will exhume the corpse anyway. The official party line is one of practicality — an aging population has depleted space at graveyards — but the true culprit here is “the pernicious side of rampant real estate development,” says Mullaney. In a crunch for land, Chinese cities are growing rapidly and repeatedly pushing cemeteries farther outside the city limits. Like a tragic comedy, “the fate of the deceased is the fate of the living,” adds Mullaney: “Even the dead can’t find a place to live.”

China isn’t alone in its burial ground shortage. This scene is playing out across the world, spawning unseemly ways to cope. Hong Kong and Singapore reportedly have five-year waiting lists for ashes to get into cremation niches, London and Sweden stack caskets atop one another and Greece recycles graves every three years. In China, a government campaign called binzang gaige (殡葬改革), or funeral reform, has pushed citizens to skip traditional burial rites in favor of cremation and, more controversially, e-burials. Although China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs did not respond to requests for comment, the digging up of bodies by the millions appears to be just the beginning.

Moreover, moving your ancestors’ graves is more than just an inconvenience, says Ruth Toulson, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Wyoming. More serious repercussions are at stake: “Many people believe that this process of destroying graves is something that turns your ancestors, who are vital to every element of your life, into ghosts,” says Toulson. Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian beliefs dictate rituals around death that differ from the West’s — the veneration of the dead is vital to their spiritual well-being in the afterlife. So, moving the remains of the deceased far away from their relatives can also unearth well-rooted ideas around properly honoring the dead. And meddling with these core beliefs can prove ghastly, says Toulson: The spiritual shift “becomes something that gets into people’s most intimate ideas about who they are, what they believe, their connection to their past and how they imagine the afterlife.”

Even as China ends its controversial one-child policy, regulations still apply all the way to the grave as the country manages with its growing pains. In other words, moving graves en masse could become a problem that haunts us all.

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