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High cost of funerals the '4th big mountain' for mourners
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The high prices of funeral services have scared many Chinese into a new death phobia - fear that they cannot afford to pay for their final place of rest.

China Youth Daily reported on April 6 that Beijing's Wan An Cemetery sold its cheapest tomb with a natural stone monument at 100,000 yuan (US$14,654) per square meter. That's much more expensive than a lot of residential apartments in big cities.

In 2008 the average disposable income of urban residents in Beijing was 24,725 yuan, and that of the farmers was 10,747 yuan.

People's Daily reported on April 7, 2008 that the prices for the cheapest completed tomb in 15 cemeteries in Beijing ranged from 11,800 yuan a square meter at Tonghui Cemetery to 78,000 yuan at Wan An Cemetery. So Wan An was the most expensive.

Many Netizens have called high funeral costs the "fourth high mountain towering over Chinese," in addition to housing, education, and medical treatment.

Charges for other funeral products, such as a funeral urn, clothing, wreaths, and mourning venues are also high.

The China Funeral Association, based in Beijing, declined to comment on the prices.

Charges for transport, storage and cremation - the basic elements of a funeral - are determined by local governments.

The going rates were set in 2001-2002, but they were too low and didn't cover actual costs. The three services combined cost 430 yuan on average. But the actual cost was between 600 and 680 yuan, given such factors as inflation. Many funeral institutions thus have developed extra services to make up for the loss.

Yang Wentao, a division chief with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, said high prices apply mostly to the above-mentioned extra services.

"A funeral and interment institution has no choice," he said, meaning prices of the three basic services are fixed by governments and there is little flexibility.

In other words, a funeral and interment institution has to run in deficit without government compensation when it comes to the basic services, but it's allowed to solve the problem by developing extra services.

Prices for cosmetic make-up and leasing the mourning hall are set by funeral parlors, under government guidance.

The operator, however, has complete freedom in setting prices for other services, such as funeral clothing, urns for ashes, wreaths and tombs.

A funeral urn that actually costs less than 100 yuan might be sold at 3,000-4,000 yuan. An unethical dealer takes advantage of grieving relatives who usually are not in the mood for bargaining.

It's weird that the 2002 rates cannot be altered. Yang Wentao said they are searching for a solution, but raising the rates for basic services would certainly trigger public opposition.

The government ensures that three basic services are accessible to everyone - but that doesn't include the tomb. In fact, a tomb is not considered necessary. "Reform encourages giving up the ashes entirely," Yang said.

There might be a day when no one in China wants a tomb for his or her after-life.

(The author is a Xinhua writer.)

(Shanghai Daily May 20, 2009)

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