Why Did the Chinese Government Host a Cremation Competition?

More than 10 million people die in China every year; that’s roughly the same as the entire population of the Dominican Republic.

Reportedly, the Chinese government has been trying to promote cremation in a bid to save land, although the funereal practice has been growing in popularity around the world for decades, including in the United States. Already, half of the 10 million people who die in China each year are cremated, and biodegradable cremation urns are particularly popular in the Asian nation.

Many people view the work of cremation as a morbid undertaking, and so to help “instil national pride in a stigmatised vocation,” late last year the Chinese government hosted the first cremation competition. The BBC reported that 50 of the country’s best crematory workers competed for the title of the country’s top cremator.

“This initiative, which attempts to change the public’s attitude towards the cremation profession, probably won’t make much of a dent. It’s focused in the wrong direction. The death care industry, in every form, will continue to be macabre to people simply because we can’t understand what it means when a body becomes lifeless and has no choice but to decompose — with our without our help,” said Ira Woods, President of OneWorld Memorials, an online cremation urn and memorial product retailer.

Not only do some Chinese cremation workers face a social stigma against handling human remains, but a national shortage has resulted in long hours in physically and emotionally taxing conditions. What’s more, some Taoist and Confucian traditions hold that the destruction of a body cuts off the deceased from their ancestors.

“Usually we have to work 10 to 12 hours in each shift. When there’s a peak in our workload, we can get up to 250 to 260 bodies a day, we wouldn’t know when we’d knock off,” Liu Yong, a Shanghai crematorium worker, told the BBC.

The Chinese government held the competition to highlight the important work being done by these workers, while also trying to attract more people to the field. Chinese state media covered the event, and reported that the top three competitors were from the famous Beijing Babaoshan cemetery.

So how does one judge a cremation competition? According to the Chinese civil affairs ministry, the best cremators show “technical operational skills,” including “furnace preparation, receiving and cremating the body, collecting the ashes, and maintaining and fixing equipment.” Also, they must possess “a diligent attitude, and send off the deceased in a peaceful and holistic manner.” Finally, mourners should receive remains that are “as white as ivory and without any kind of impurity.”

Although Chinese state media may not be the most objective source of information, the civil affairs ministry stated that the competition successfully “enhanced society’s understanding of the cremation industry…and gave a strong push to the building of the cremation worker corps.”

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