tombs and cremation


tombs and cremation
Since ancient times, tombs in China have most commonly consisted of a simple mound over the coffin, sometimes with a rectangular stone tablet identifying the deceased at the head or foot end. Mounds are found in different shapes, and are often covered over with mortar. Tombs must be located according to geomantic principles (see fengshui); the ideal tomb site has high ground behind it and water in front. In more elaborate tombs, the mound is surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped embankment built of stone or concrete, which protects the grave from falling rainwater if there really is high ground behind the tomb, and simulates a mountain if there is not. There is much regional variation: tombs in north China tend to be of the simple mound type, and coffins may be stored above ground to await final interment after the death of the spouse, while people in some parts of south China practise secondary burial, in which remains are disinterred after several years, then reburied in a jar at a permanent tomb.
Since 1956, the Chinese government has promoted cremation over tomb burial, citing concerns about superstitious practices, deforestation for coffins, and encroachment on arable land. But a strong cultural preference for burial persists.
It is estimated that 50–70 per cent of Chinese dead are still buried in tombs, with higher proportions in rural areas. Some elderly urban residents return to their native village to await death, so that they can avoid compulsory cremation in the city. There are now over 100,000 public cemeteries in urban and rural areas, which sell rights to small burial plots, but especially in the countryside many people continue to build tombs illicitly, either separately or in family or lineage cemeteries. In the reform era, elaborate private tombs with large terraces, stone staircases and stone sepulchres have reappeared in the countryside, many built by overseas Chinese and residents of Taiwan or Hong Kong. Some kinship groups have also rebuilt putative graves of their distant ancestors in order to promote cohesiveness and build networks (see ancestral halls/lineage temples). The sweeping of tombs of ancestors and the offering of paper money and food are the central rituals of the Clear and Bright Festival (Qingming Festival). Recent government initiatives to reduce expenditure on tombs and tomb rituals include campaigns to plant trees over buried cremated remains, and the creation of Internet memorials.
MICHAEL SZONYI

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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