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China

Feature: Mortician grapples with China's death taboo

2018-04-11 09:13:42

HANGZHOU, April 10 (Xinhua) -- Wang Yuanyuan cannot even attend her good friends' weddings because she is viewed as a bringer of bad luck, but that is just the life of a mortician.

Wearing dark blue overalls and plastic gloves, Wang removes a blanket covering the newest arrival at a funeral home in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou.

A tag comes with the body showing its name, age and sex, but not the cause of death.

It matters not, as Wang's 12-years on the job have given her a mortician's sixth sense for death -- she instantly knew it was a traffic accident.

Gruesome as it is sounds, she spends three and a half hours washing the corpse, ensuring no blood or wounds are visible, stitching together the dead man's injuries, while providing funeral make-up and fully dressing the body. It is not a much sought after job.

However, the 34-year-old woman with a medium build and girlish ponytail is proud of her job, believing it gives dignity to the dead.

Though being a mortician is a good job in many places, talking about death is still taboo in Chinese tradition as people fear that any work related to death brings bad luck.

"People always ask me why I took such a job," Wang said. "But it was to atone for an early regret in my life."

Wang was born in a small village in east China's Jiangsu Province where according to local custom unmarried girls were not allowed to witness the cremations of relatives.

When her grandfather passed away, she never got a chance to say goodbye, despite begging her family to do so while in tears. It has haunted her ever since.

"I chose funeral services as my major when I applied for a college, without hesitation," she said.

Wang became a mortician in a funeral home in Yuhang District of Hangzhou after graduation in 2006 and still remembers the first time she handled a dead body.

"Holding a razor, I just stood in front of the deceased. Time seemed to go so slowly," she said.

Most of her classmates became masters of funeral ceremonies, managers at cemeteries or took up other jobs at funeral homes. She is the only mortician that directly handles corpses.

As tomb-sweeping day, an occasion when Chinese honor their ancestors, ended last week, life and death re-emerged as a topic for discussion across the country.

"The general mindset has changed a lot in recent years, but death is still a taboo. Many people turn a cold shoulder to funeral service workers," said Ding Hongfeng, director at Wang's funeral home.

Ding said that some people do not let hearses stop in front of their doors or funeral service workers pass by their houses when picking up the deceased.

"Funeral service workers suffer pressure from friends and family too. Some even find it hard to get a marriage partner," Ding said.

The job carries with it its own unique strains of stress. Wang cannot so much as smile at work.

"Smiling in front of families who have suffered a loss is very impolite," she said.

She also pays attention to other details, such as never saying goodbye to others, or attending auspicious events where people customarily regard her as ominous.

But Wang manages these misunderstandings, and despite their occasional cruelty she can cope with being ostracized now and then.

"My biggest wish is to help the deceased and their families make a final parting with respect," she said.

She will never forget one incident when a young girl was killed in a traffic accident. Her mother was heartbroken and could not cope with the sickening experience of seeing her dead child, who had been mutilated in the crash.

"The mother cried, saying her daughter had loved to be beautiful. How could she leave this world in such a terrible state?" she said.

Wang and her colleagues did all they could to succour the mother's grief, using a piece of wood to fix the girl's spine, gently stitching together the girls delicate yet broken skin, dressing her carefully and applying pretty make-up to her face.

Seeing her daughter look almost like she did in life, calmed the mother and gave her spiritual comfort. It is small moments like these that make Wang's job worth it.

Partly driven by China's aging population, there is a rapid growth in demand for death care services across the country. Many technical colleges across the country started offering studies in funeral services.

For Wang, this means more young undertakers will join her to fight for social acceptance in their profession.

Drowned kids, the elderly dying from strokes, or bodies even without names... by facing death every day, Wang cherishes life more than her peers.

"Perhaps we can't choose when and how we die, but we can decide our attitude toward death -- the transfer station between life and eternity," Wang said.

Editor:Jiang Yiwei