A public cemetery in Dalian Photo: CFP
Just 70 days after her mother was buried, Na Yuqin got some spine tingling news that likely caused her goose bumps.
Without her consent or knowledge, her mother's body was exhumed and cremated on orders from the local district civil affairs bureau in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province.
"It was my mother's last wish to be buried next to my father," said Na who buried her mother in late August on a hillside with other graves.
A few months after the funeral, Na was told by the civil affairs bureau that her mother's remains must be exhumed and cremated by November 18 or the family would be fined 5,000 yuan ($787).
Just two days before the deadline, Na learned the bureau had already exhumed her mother's body and had it cremated.
Wang Zhanhai, head of Acheng District Civil Affairs Bureau, told the Guangzhou Daily they had to act fast. "It was getting cold. We had to dig before the ground froze." Calls to Wang's office by the Global Times went unanswered.
The local bureau's handling of the case sparked a huge debate and stirred deep feelings about life and death, tradition and superstition.
Not only were local officials criticized for the insensitive and ham-handed way they dealt with exhuming the body, many people believe improper funerals and disturbing the dead can impact a family's fortunes.
"Digging someone's grave is as bad as murdering someone's father, it's unacceptable and against Chinese traditional culture and morality," said Professor Kong Qingdong of Peking University, using a traditional metaphor that values the life of the male head of a family above others.
The Chinese idiom "rutu weian," literally meaning "return to earth and find peace," remains a powerful and widely held mysterious concept that is in direct conflict with the country's burial regulations.
With more than 9 million deaths a year most people understand there is simply not enough room to bury all the dead in their own grave.
Despite many strong, emotive traditions, the government issued funeral regulations in 1985 to encourage people to cremate the dead and save the land for the living and for crops.
Two and a half decades after the regulations were implemented they are still being widely ignored especially in rural areas. Statistics published by the Ministry of Civil Affairs show the national cremation rate in 2010 was 49 percent, up 0.8 percent from 2009. The percentage of rural residents who are buried is believed to be much higher than urban residents.
Old beliefs die hard
"It's a problem as people in rural areas continue to hold onto their old beliefs," Zhou Wei, a law professor at Sichuan University, told the Global Times.
Even those who consent to cremation still want their ashes to be buried in designated graves.
For bereaved families a proper funeral and burial has as much with the living as it does with finding a peaceful resting place for the person who has passed.
Feng shui masters are often asked to determine the best location and direction a grave should face. They also provide an auspicious time of day the burial should occur.
Many people believe if instructions and traditions aren't properly followed the dead who are unhappy or ill-at-ease will seek revenge on future generations.
That's why a busy businessman from Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, has decided to bury his grandfather's ashes a decade after his death.
The man in his mid-30s, who asked not to be identified, has suffered persistent ill health which traditional Chinese medicinal treatments haven't cured. After seeing his grandfather in a dream holding a banner printed with the idiom "rutu weian," the man decided it was a message from the beyond. He asked his relatives for permission to bury the former family patriarch's ashes, which have been kept in a public mausoleum, and they all agreed.
"I received a message from my grandfather and I think burying him will help our life," he told the Global Times. He intends to bury his grandfather's ashes in a marked grave near the remote village where he was born but left as a boy.
With such an intense sense of the afterlife in a country with little religion and strong superstition, authorities have tried to make regulations that are sensitive to tradition, especially those of minority people.
It has exempted, for example, the Tibetan "sky burial," a centuries-old tradition in which the dead are left in mountains to be eaten by birds.
Enforcing burial regulations has triggered numerous conflicts between distraught families and local civil affair bureaus that are charged with enforcing the country's cremation laws.
In March 2007, the civil affair bureau of Linzhou, Henan Province, exhumed an illegally buried body and had it cremated. It then imposed an 8,000 yuan fine on the family when it asked for the return of the ashes, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
"Forcing the cremation of a family's deceased loved one hurts both the image of government and the deceased," Professor Zhou said.
The case of the Na's family in Harbin also raised the ugly issue of bribery. She said that while her mother's remains were exhumed without her permission, numerous graves nearby where left unmolested. She believes other families paid officials to leave their family members on the hillside burial ground.
The business of death
In China dying is not cheap. The few legally operating cemeteries sell plots by the square meter and cremations can cost thousands of yuan.
With only 1,724 crematoriums in the country, 90 percent of which are State-owned, many people complain they have a monopoly on death.
In Beijing, the cost of a standard funeral is between 3,000-6,000 yuan, and includes only an hour's funeral service at the crematorium, transport of the remains and cremation.
A legal cemetery in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, recently raised the price of a grave to 90,000 yuan per square meter.
An online survey conducted by sohu.com in 2010 showed that 92 percent of 5,600 respondents believe the funeral industry is making too much profit at the expense of people's misery.
Zhang Hongchang, secretary-general of the China Funeral Association and vice counsel to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, told the Global Times that the public perception that his is a ghastly business has given those in the funeral service sector a terrible image.
"It's not an easy job. Just imagine having to deal with bodies every day, not everyone can handle it. I wish society would show more understanding," he said.
Many of those in charge of enforcing burial regulations like Xia Changhei, from Rongcheng county, Hebei Province, are well aware it takes tact and sympathy when dealing with grieving families.
His job is to talk farmers out of burying the recently departed.
To stop rural residents from secretly burying their dead relatives, he and his team often camp out overnight in the already full local graveyard.
Xia recalls the time he finally talked a family into cremating the remains of one of their relatives and having to exhume the decomposing, stinking body from a shallow grave.
Last March he said his team was surrounded by an angry crowd that tried to stop them from cremating a young man who had died tragically.
"They argued, cried, begged and yelled at us," he told Heibei Daily, "I could do nothing but hold the old man's hands and tell him that I understood his pain and that I would take care of his deceased son."
With Tomb Sweeping Day designated as one of the country's national holidays, the tradition of after-death filial piety is not likely to disappear.
For some the argument against providing space on earth for those who no longer need it has come down to a mathematical equation that's not easily solved.
In Shanghai, funeral officials estimate six hectares is used to bury the dead each year and that existing cemeteries will be completely full within 20 years.
With China's aging population the demand for land for graves could grow exponentially and consume land that could be used for the living, said Wang Hong, dean of Shanghai's funeral service center.
Promoting green burials
Authorities are attempting to promote green burials as an alternative to graves or having to care for cremated remains. In April last year Beijing began offering free "sea burial" services to residents.
Some families have also opted for "tree burials" where the ashes of a relative are scattered at the base of a designated tree. This government-sponsored service costs only 200 to 300 yuan.
For professor Kong the key to easing the controversy over burials is for officials to be more understanding of a family's grief. He says the exhuming of the Na's family matriarch was an obvious, insensitive overreaction by the local civil affair bureau.
"It was the grave of a family's newly buried mother, and they were still grieving. How can that be acceptable to anyone?" Kong asked.