The business of farewell: A closer look at China's mortuary industry
Name a universal matter that will 100 percent happen to people of all races and nations in the world. Death, of course. A common, heavy topic for all mortal beings. Yet paradoxically, little is known about how exactly a body is handled from deathbed to grave, since what's left for most people to do in a funeral is just grieving.
The Japanese Oscar winner Departures years ago took us into the world of working morticians with a humanitarian respect for life and death. In China, the funeral industry also has its own particular way of operating. Public funeral homes are responsible for some parts of the process, but privately owned companies are always ready to step in if something is not well enough attended to.
Today's story uncovers the daily work of funeral practitioners and businesses running in the industry from an insider's view. The article is selected from 极昼工作室 [Media-Fox], a WeChat blog affiliated with the portal giant Sohu.com. It records real-life stories and provides a platform for the voices of frequently overlooked individuals to be heard.
With the title of "service for human life and ceremony", this company seems to have nothing to do with the funeral business from the outside. What it has is the normal layout of offices and usual sections like the channel department and sales department. In 2021, Tang Shenqi picked this private company on https://www.cnbzrc.com, a job-hunting website for funeral services. The internship interview required few professional skills and with her CV and thesis, she requested to do field study here. She was admitted.
Tang is doing her PhD in anthropology at Fudan University, studying the subject of funeral since undergraduate. In her hometown Chongming District of Shanghai, the remains are supposed to be placed at one's home where the mourning hall is decorated for people's wailing and meals served for them. That heavy flavor of locality and ritual is quite different from Shanghai urban district. In the city, one is immediately transferred from home to a mortuary or a funeral parlor as he/she dies, stepping into a commercial assembly line.
Tang's hair stood on end when she entered the mortuary—freezers with corpses inside, body parts laid around, and pungent smell of formalin. What surprised her most, though, was the commercial side of death. After nearly a year of observation and investigation as one of the staff, she found that the funeral practitioners were constantly living under the social stigma that "death is related to ill contamination". From nursing home to mortuary and to funeral parlor, caring and amity to the dead only exist in imagination.
"Living or dead, one is always entangled in social order and profits," Tang explained. When people are alive, they need to obey the social rules, sustain their lives and create their value as society expects; when they die, they are still not free from the rules established by the living. They are forced to follow a regulated path and taken over by various institutions, being pulled and pushed, finally drawn into latent competitions and businesses.
The article is based on Tang Shenqi's account and thesis.
1.Business in the mortuary
When I was in my hometown, people used to run the funeral at their place, holding rituals and feasting the guests. While in the more modern part of Shanghai, the bodies are moved from ward to mortuary, and then straight to funeral parlor and cemetery.
The company where I worked as an intern undertook the nursing work and mortuary service in a Grade III, Level A hospital. The two parts stand on opposite sides of life and death, complementing each other. This makes the funeral business start even before one dies.
Nursing workers are most of the time doing jobs of emotions. Apart from taking care of the patients and washing and cleaning up the excrement for them, they also need to deal with the families. They cannot ask how sick the patients are or when they are about to come to the end, but can only say something to their family like "you are kind to the elder, hiring me to provide care", which is all about their love and filial responsibility for the dying. Naturally, they will relax to talk about their family relations and economic conditions with nursing workers.
Once a 74-year-old local granny passed away. My colleague Ah Fa and his apprentice Ah Cai who work in mortuary quickly put on their white overalls and took up the stretcher and body bag, heading to the deceased's ward. The nursing worker who took care of the granny told Ah Fa that the elder had two daughters and a son. The son was working at a public institution, which meant he earned a nice steady income, and he was generous enough to spend it on his mother.
Ah Fa said to him that the mortuary was filthy and cold and a good shroud for his mother to wear would better show his respect as a son. He did not hesitate to pay for a traditional-style red shroud. After the carer cleaned up and changed clothes for the body, Ah Fa and Ah Cai helped move it to the mortuary. Then they ushered the family into the "business negotiation room" and recommended a set of articles for funeral use, including mourning hall decorations, an urn, flowers, tinfoil, etc.
When I interviewed for the job, the deputy manager told me that virtually no one would bargain for funeral services, so they made it a 20,000 yuan (about 2800 U.S. dollars) package, fixed price. People would normally feel ashamed to say no.
The trick of the funeral business is to persuade the family from the moral high ground, coaxing them that they should hold a decent ceremony for the beloved deceased out of filial piety. As a result, a little ceremonial object put in the corpse's mouth (three yuan at cost) can be sold at a high price with the package only if the payer has enough and cares much for the dead. Of course, it cannot be over-priced.
You can actually tell whether the family is poor. An immigrant worker suddenly died of disease when working at the construction site in summer. His son and daughter-in-law rushed over from far away, and appeared reluctant in front of the 20,000 yuan service package. The colleague of sales promotion immediately understood that this deal was hard to gain much profit so he'd rather cut the price to quickly get things done.
The farewell hall is another place where money comes. Situated on the underground floor, the mortuary of this hospital is rather bad in condition—roughcast built, no window for daylight, formalin in the air. The bodies are like meat in the freezer.
Seeing what it's like, many people would find it hard to place their family member in it who passed away only a few hours ago. So the company prepared some farewell halls that were better in decoration. A regular room can keep the corpse for free for 24 hours (dozens of yuan per day charged for extra time), while a luxury one costs up to one or two thousand yuan a day.
The so-called "luxury" only means a little breath of liveliness: wood-based embellishment, well-cleaned, carved altar and chairs, paintings with cranes of good omen. More importantly, the body would be frozen hard like ice in the mortuary, but the refrigerator in the farewell room can keep it quite normal. The funeral staff would step in and play the moral trick, emphasizing that "the mortuary is no good with lots of bodies, renting a farewell room would be better".
A senior leader of the company once said that we need to "acquire customers", that is to find more corpses. The phrase shocked me greatly. It is completely a notion of marketing.
Funeral companies compete with funeral homes run by the civil affairs department. Who can reach out to the dead and the family first, who will win the business edge? Dead bodies are a sanitary risk for the city and it usually takes only two to three days from deadbed to cremation. On the one hand, the hospitals only care about the living; on the other, the department responsible for the dead is not able to take over in a short time.
Therefore, the chance left over by both sides is easily taken by funeral companies who keep a close eye on the mortuaries. They try hard to promote their services and monopolize the subsequent business, leaving only memorial services and cremation for the public funeral homes to make profit.
Considering not all people trust the mortuary staff, they have their own tactics. For example, they will get prepared and wrap the body bag around the corners of the stretcher in advance. They will carefully avoid bumping or moving the corpse too much and take bows three times before and after carrying it to show respect. On the wall of mortuary is the slogan "Staff Never Accepts Bribe", which the workers do follow.
But this seemingly professional handling is actually a type of "disguise". My colleague told me that it is similar to cleaning staff of hotels. Do they really cover every nook and corner of the rooms? Not necessarily. But they know the dust on the surface must be cleaned. Putting the body in the bag is a move on the surface which all the people can see. As long as the most obvious motions do not go wrong, they can win the family's heart.
Strictly speaking, private funeral companies are not eligible for professional qualifications so operations such as cleaning and dressing up are supposed to be done by professionals from the funeral homes. It reveals the major task of the mortuary work, that is, business promotion, which is also the purpose of this kind of targeted service.
The mortuary business is the most important and most lucrative in this company. But they still try to work harder, to create new customer networks, and to expand the business to communities and nursing homes, researching and planning ahead.
It is a process of covert waiting because people in these places are still alive. They get alarmed when they know you come from a funeral company. So the workers disguise themselves as community volunteers to promote their business, paying visits to the elderly and establishing contacts with the communities.
They must patiently wait for potential customers and track them with their direct motives hidden. It is one of the most important points to bear in mind for funeral business—wiping off everything that may relate to death, and looking for the "dead" beneath the veil of "alive".
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2.Taboo and Endurance
I serve as an assistant manager in the company, essentially acting as the boss's secretary. Upon joining, another secretary, skilled in fortune-telling, assessed my birth chart — a ritual for every new employee. He took my birth date and phone number and, noting the numerous "0"s in my phone number, suggested I wouldn't amass great wealth in my life. He also mentioned I was meticulous, deeming me suitable for paperwork. Initially, I thought this might just be a scripted spiel. However, when I was later assigned a writing role, I began to wonder if it was actually a workplace strategy.
Many colleagues don't consider the funeral industry as their final destination and a lot of them have changed their professions. For example, some who often dealt with hospitals might choose to be pharmaceutical representatives; one colleague even went on to open a restaurant. Generally, most people changed to careers associated with the health department.
In the funeral industry, many colleagues feel that they have been "contaminated" by death, so superstitions are prevalent and have become deeply ingrained in them. Everyone in the company wears prayer beads that are believed to ward off disasters, and they persuaded me to wear one too. So, symbolically, I wore a plain gold bracelet.
Sometimes, I got curious about my colleagues' work in the body storage room. When I went to take a look, the two older colleagues who went with me were reluctant to come in contact with the bodies. They were also very unwilling to be assigned the role of liaisons in the morgue, hoping to be as far away from it as possible.
Society has always considered the funeral industry to be one full of taboos and filth, where the living deal with the dead. This brings immense psychological pressure to the practitioners. For instance, when Ah Cai first started working at the morgue, he couldn’t eat and lost over 20 pounds. Sometimes, sudden incidents at night would disturb his sleep.
A hearse from a funeral home
Many people get into the funeral industry by chance. Some have relatives in the health sector who recommended them; others who work at the mortuary stay for the high income. However, they all wish to disassociate themselves from death. Office workers often underscore that they don't deal with the deceased directly. When asked, some say they provide consultation, while others from the morgue say they work in hospital logistics.
A female colleague, with whom I'm close, is the liaison with the morgue. She fled from an arranged marriage in Henan to come to Shanghai over a decade ago, working in beauty parlors and nursing homes before spending two to three years in the funeral industry. However, she despises the job and can't understand my interest in researching it. After I gave birth to my child, she asked, “Won’t your research affect your child?” I told her I'm a materialist.
Another colleague works at a morgue in a Grade II, Level A hospital. Her office is far from the morgue, and she decorates it homely, frequently spraying perfume. She seldom goes down to the morgue and consciously keeps her work and personal life separate. Her social media profile is work-free and appears "clean" — she too wishes to leave this field.
The closer one gets to the corpse, the stronger the desire seems to be to escape from this industry. After all, this kind of business requires advance planning, and the organizing brings about moral tension, making them wonder if they are profiting from the dead. Will there be negative consequences?
But most people can only endure. Like Ah Cai and Ah Fa, who live and work in the mortuary daily, sharing the space with the deceased. Visiting the wards to collect the bodies is one of their few opportunities to leave the underground morgue. Living this way is oppressive for most, as besides dealing with the dead, they also face grieving families.
Most family members tend to restrain their emotions, but one bereaved family member left a deep impression on me. A young person died of a terminal illness and donated his organs. At that time, his mother was truly heartbroken, and no one could console her. One would imagine that funeral staff would offer psychological counseling, especially to relatives with such strong emotions. But Ah Fa and Ah Cai didn't. In the brief time and confined space, they could only persuade with a mix of authority and morality, swiftly advancing their business and interrupting the family's haunting emotions.
3.Life and Death
I'm not insensible being a human. I felt immense stress doing this research. I once had a dream where someone sternly said, “You are exploiting the dead for your research, why don’t you burn paper money for them?” I was scared, for it touched my moral concerns. I immediately burned two bags of joss paper that night.
My husband and academic friends support me, but I don’t share my morgue visits with my parents. My mentor was initially worried about my research. After all, Chinese people have a profound fear of strangers' deaths. Anthropologists are also humans, influenced by societal values.
One main challenge was field access. I entered funeral companies by submitting resumes and interviewing. But for funeral homes, which generally require professionals, it's hard for me to enter with an institution identity. Instead, I would visit daily, observe different memorial services, watch families' reactions, the flow of the service, and the setup. I walked and observed every floor of the funeral parlor and asked the staff questions. The security guards would watch me closely, but they couldn’t kick me out because I was just a cultural observer.
Conflicts in funeral homes often outweigh warm moments. Some bodies remain uncremated for long due to family disputes over inheritance. These delays increase the funeral home's expenses, and sometimes, families vent their frustrations on the staff.
I'd also frequent the entrance of funeral homes, chatting with vendors. With time and observation, you uncover insights. For instance, I found a flower vendor who knew hearse drivers and received business leads.
The funeral home staff don't fully trust me. Knowing I'm researching, they're cautious. Access to the mortuary was mostly self-initiated. For example, I'd tell a liaison I want to provide information to my boss, and they'd allow me to accompany them. In the morgue, young and inexperienced Ah Cai sometimes shared his views on pricing with me.
However, I can't access the network in hospitals or communities. Previously, I described the industry as "hunting for the dead across the city", observing its purpose and competitive tactics, which I wasn't very pleased to see — does death have to be so complicated?
When people think of funerals, the only thing that comes into their minds may be funeral homes. However, many don't realize that, behind the scenes, funeral companies have already put many things in place before one dies. The transport of human remains is not a seemingly smooth process, but entails great delicacy.
A cemetery in Shanghai
Some people assume my findings are exaggerated, assuming that I want to oust those in the funeral business. If so, who would handle the deceased? But I'm not against the funeral industry. My focus is on market-driven funeral companies, not including life education or cemeteries. And I admit that market dynamics are essential, complementing rational systems.
Death can happen at any moment. Funeral companies can be on call anytime, not bound by the standard 9-to-5 working hours, providing guidance to the family on funeral matters. This brings strong emotional comfort. After all, people have a simple feeling about death. The body of the deceased is not merely a rational-level bacterial bomb; its socio-cultural attributes still exist. The pace of modern society is too fast, rational systems continuously compress traditional funeral ceremonies, and market factors can then fill in the gap.
Without rituals, people cannot understand the identity changes that occur after death or examine the break in societal relationships. This is essentially a lack of life education, which may intensify the spiritual crisis of modern people.
The deputy general manager of the company told me that when he first joined, he was ambitious and wanted to change the industry. But as time went on, he felt the need to be more realistic, focusing on the tricks of doing business and continuously adapting to its unwritten rules.
Now, many young people say they are willing to join this industry and make a difference, which I think is great. Techniques like body preservation still have plenty of room for development. However, if it's merely out of curiosity, it's not necessary. During their training, they won't get exposed to the societal and economic interests, and whether they can maintain their original aspiration once they join the industry is crucial.
For me, doing this research allowed me to see "life" through "death". When you see a body laid to rest, you feel that none of us is that important. We are all just mortal beings. It's like existentialist thinking—life itself is meaningless, but one can experience life within this meaninglessness and live each day to the fullest.