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THE municipal government of Yueqing City in Zhejiang Province recently issued a notice, which triggered heated disputes.
The notice listed specific provisions on funeral arrangements, including the duration of funeral services no longer than three days “in principle,” and no more than four wreaths being placed.
I called up one of my university classmates living in Yueqing to learn about the background information on the matter.
“The local funeral and interment customs are indeed annoyingly outdated,” said my classmate. Rich families hold extravagant funerals, which usually last seven to 10 days. Every day sees feasts consisting of dozens or even hundreds of tables and Buddhist or Taoist ceremonies. Dined and wined, mourners and other funeral attendees sit around the table playing mahjong, or gambling, to be more accurate.
Tons of fake paper banknotes and various “goods” are burned as offerings to the dead. Truckloads of firecrackers are set off. The funeral procession will cover a distance of dozens of miles and the dead will be interred in their coffin twice. To avoid being called unfilial, many not-so-wealthy, or even poor families, are forced to follow suit.
Needless to say, the bad practice must be eradicated. The question is how.
Like other folk customs, funerary customs date back to thousands of years ago, and are still deeply ingrained in vast rural areas. “The Book of Rites” or “Liji,” a collection of texts describing the social forms, administration and ceremonial rites of the Zhou Dynasty, prescribes concrete rituals and formalities that all ranks of society must observe.
Concerning filial duty, it offers three criteria: supporting parents when they are alive, mourning them after they die and holding funeral services to mourn. Over time, observing these time-honored rituals has become a must-do tradition for Chinese.
It takes a long time to get rid of old customs and establish new ones. After the founding of the PRC, governments at all levels have been striving to educate the people to take on new funerary and interment practices. As a result, cremation has taken the place of burial in the majority of places in the country, and funeral ceremonies have become much simpler and more unadorned in cities and most rural areas.
It’s not hard for open-minded people, me included, to accept more enlightened arrangements after death. I bought a grave for my parents, but I will not allow my remains to take up precious land after my death. Scattering my ashes into the sea or burying them beneath a tree is my wish.
Yet it is ridiculous for a government to limit the number of wreaths or days for funerals. It’s alright to ban Party members, officials and civil servants from being involved in lavish funerals, but to require grass-roots masses to do so is unreasonable.
Impractical measures are as bad as no measures at all. What if five or six wreaths are found at a funeral? The confiscation of the extra ones could result in conflicts while doing nothing about the breach will reduce the regulation into a piece of waste paper, thus undermining the government’s credibility.
The three-day limit for funeral services is even more stupid. To me, one day is enough, but it is very likely that some villagers have relatives and friends who come from other provinces or even overseas to attend the funeral, so three days are really too short.
Moreover, by doing so the Yueqing government may have exceeded its authority. China’s Administrative Licensing Law stipulates that only a provincial government or higher executive bodies have the right to issue administrative regulations.
Personally, I’m opposed to the liberal stance of minimizing the government’s role. On the other hand, I’m also against the attempt to create an omnipotent government. The government should know very well the boundary between its authority and law as well as the freedom of citizens.
(The author is an English tutor and freelance writer.)