Why Are So Many Elderly People in China Committing Suicide?
Broken hearts abound in the Anhui province of China. A shocking number of elderly Chinese citizens there took their own lives in April and May. They weren’t ill or depressed. They killed themselves to ensure they could be buried rather than cremated.
Ham-handed, insensitive implementation of what’s being called “funeral reform” is to blame for this tragedy.
In April 2014, officials in the province of Anhui announced a new rule. According to authorities, the policy said, ”Before June 1 people can still consign their bodies for burial, but after that the only option offered will be cremation.”
This news devastated many of the elderly population in the region. To them, it was imperative to be buried as tradition requires. The only way to assure that was to die before June 1.
The Serious Business of Death in China
“I began to hear about such suicides when I went back home in mid May and it was what all those older people talked about: How they dislike the idea of being burned after death and how they fear their coffins would be torn apart,” an anonymous 17-year-old girl told the Global Times.
Traditions associated with death and burial remain a cornerstone of Chinese culture. This is especially true for Chinese senior citizens from the more rural areas of the country. They plan for their deaths years, even decades, in advance. It can sometimes take that long to save up for an elaborate and beautiful casket.
“My grandparents are in their 80s. Their coffins were made at least 15 years ago,” one woman told the Global Times. “A coffin purchase is like a house purchase to them and means a lot.”
The Chinese historically have viewed the corporeal body as an ancestral gift. Many believe upon death it should be placed in the ground, intact, near the family’s ancestral village.
“Chinese people value death as life itself,” Yao Zhongqiu, a professor at Beihang University, told the Global Times. “It is not an end, rather, a new beginning. People treat the ancestors who passed away as if they were still alive, which explains the concept of a burial of a complete body in a coffin and burning money and clothes made of paper.”
Coffins Confiscated and Smashed by Government Officials
Unfortunately, authorities believe there’s literally no room for this type of ancestral homage today. The Chinese government has been encouraging greater use of cremation or burial at sea as far back as 1949, with mixed results.
Nine million Chinese die every year. Cemetery space is almost non-existent and burial has been prohibited in all but the most rural areas for years.
In Anhui province, officials say it was concern over fires caused during ritual burial celebrations in 2013 that caused them to crack down in 2014. To ensure adherence to the new cremation-only policy, in April and May they began visiting funeral homes and even private residences to register and destroy caskets.
Shock and outrage over this decision triggered a spate of sudden suicides. Among those who took their own lives — or attempted to do so — were:
- Zhang Wenying, 81, hanged herself on May 13. Her suicide note explained that she’d killed herself to be sure she could have the death she wished and she wanted to be buried.
- Wu Zhengde, 91, of the Xindian village, hanged himself from a tree on May 6, an hour after his son returned from a meeting and told him authorities planned to begin seizing coffins to ensure compliance with the new cremation policy. Wu had a special red laquered coffin stored lovingly under a cover in his room, made from the wood of 12 fir trees.
- Zheng Shifang, 83, was so appalled after officials arrived at her home and reportedly sawed her coffin in half that she hanged herself on May 23.
- Jiang Xiuha, 81, hanged herself in her own backyard on April 18 after authorities showed up at her home to register her coffin.
- Pan Xiuying, 88, from Chanchong village, purchased her coffin over a decade ago and kept it near her bed. Since April 20, she’s tried to poison herself four times by drinking pesticide because authorities tried to seize her coffin. She agreed to stop attempting to take her life after officials agreed not to take the coffin.
- Wu Zhengde, 91, hanged himself on May 6 after hearing officials were confiscating coffins.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, the official stance of the Anhui Civil Affairs Department is that there is no connection between the suicides and the new burial rules.
Though much has been made of the June 1 deadline, according to the New York Times, the transition to cremation is being phased in. By the close of 2014, 50 percent of people who die will have to be cremated. By the end of 2015, that number rises to 70 percent and then to 80 percent by 2016.
Sadly, those who chose to die in April and May needed to be absolutely sure authorities would honor their desire to be buried. Beating the deadline was the only way.
The Elderly Deserve Respect for Their Traditions and Beliefs
“More persuasive efforts are needed and [government officials] should spend more time communicating with elderly people,” Yuan Gang, professor with the School of Government at Peking University, told the Global Times.
“Life must be respected, and the people’s opinions must be held in awe,” Anquing journalist Zhi Fan wrote in a commentary piece for the Beijing News. “In the face of ‘elderly people ending it,’ the relevant authorities should at least reflect: Funeral reform should accord with contemporary funeral and burial customs, and they must be careful of the manner in which they implement it.”
Surely local officials could have devised a more sensitive way to implement the new cremation policy. Visiting old people’s homes and smashing their caskets before their eyes is simply cruel and unnecessary. So much planning goes into the rituals of death — could not the local officials put a bit more planning into their implementation of an unpopular but necessary policy?
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