“No one in the family could say goodbye to grandfather or see his face for the last time,” said Gao Yingwei, a computer scientist in Wuhan whose grandfather, Gao Shixu, apparently succumbed to the novel coronavirus the February 7. one year died at home; a funeral in protective gear came to collect his body, telling the family that he would be cremated immediately.
“To date, we have no idea how her body was handled, where her ashes are or when we can get them back,” said Gao. “I don’t even know which funeral home these guys were from. “
To add to the anxiety, the rituals of sweeping graves – when huge crowds flock to cemeteries – have been banned or severely restricted by the country’s authorities. While a limited number of reserved mourners will be allowed to enter cemeteries in Beijing and Shanghai, there will be no such gatherings in Wuhan, where the municipal government has banned funeral ceremonies and sweeping of graves until May at least.
This is apparently due to health problems, but it also reflects Beijing’s political desire, experts say, to deny emotional families the opportunity to reunite and complain about the government’s management of the epidemic – a a question of great sensitivity for the ruling Communist Party.
The coronavirus pandemic ravaging the world officially claimed 2,563 lives in Wuhan, where it started in a market that sold exotic animals for consumption. But evidence emerging from the city as it recovers from its two-month hibernation suggests that the death toll is exponentially higher.
Long lines have formed at funeral homes in Wuhan in the past two weeks, as family members were told they could collect the remains of loved ones before the day of grave cleanup. Some waited six hours to receive an urn, then the ashes.
The Hankou funeral home crematorium operated 19 hours a day, and men were enlisted to help carry the bodies. In just two days, the house received 5,000 ballot boxes, the respected magazine Caixin reported.
Using photos posted online, social media detectives estimated that Wuhan funeral homes have returned 3,500 ballot boxes a day since March 23. This would imply an estimated 42,000 dead in Wuhan, 16 times the official number. Another widely shared calculation by Radio Free Asia, based on the 84 ovens in Wuhan operating nonstop and each cremation taking an hour, reported 46,800 deaths.
Wuhan residents say the activities belie official statistics. “It can’t be true. . . because the incinerators operate 24 hours a day, so how do so few people die? A man identified only by his last name, Zhang, told RFA.
American intelligence agencies have reportedly concluded that China’s official figures are far below reality.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Thursday that China was open and transparent about the coronavirus epidemic, and accused US officials of making “shameless” comments that cast doubt on accounting for the toll by Beijing.
Deaths not counted
Grandpa Gao had a fever and difficulty breathing for two weeks, but his family could not get medical care for him. “It was the darkest and most chaotic time for Wuhan, and it was everyone’s own,” said his grandson.
Gao has never been tested for coronavirus, but his family has no doubt that the new pathogen caused his death. His wife fell ill later in February, when coronavirus tests became more numerous and were confirmed to be infected. She stays in the hospital.
Other families in Wuhan report similar experiences.
When Liu Cheng, 49, officially died on February 12 of a “serious infection of both lungs”, Liu Xiaobo had half an hour to get to the health care facility where his brother had lived for five years after to have been paralyzed.
He didn’t get there until his brother was cremated. “It was brutal for us, and what they did lacked the most basic respect for the dead,” said Liu.
Like Grandpa Gao, Liu Cheng is not included in official coronavirus statistics. “My brother will forever be among the thousands of unnamed dead,” said Liu Xiaobo.
Public cemeteries in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei Province have said their staff will sweep the graves during the memorial period, and some private funeral companies offer to take care of the graves for paying customers, who can watch live.
But it deprives Chinese families not only of a chance to honor their deceased, but also of a rare opportunity to get together for an outing, eat and talk and travel side by side.
With the development of China, metropolises built cemeteries on their outskirts to preserve urban land. This means that sweeping graves is a major undertaking for many, involving long-distance travel, usually from bumper to bumper. Families therefore make it a day.
The Chinese authorities do not want any of this this year.
Instead, the Ministry of Civil Affairs told local authorities to “take full advantage” of online funeral ceremonies and online tomb scanning, where people can perform electronic arcs and make digital offerings. On the Celestial Cemetery website, for example, customers can download photos and videos of deceased loved ones and offer them a virtual glass of baijiu alcohol, or light a virtual cigar with a virtual lighter for pennies.
Fu Shou Yuan, one of the largest funeral service providers in China, launched an online grave scanning service a few years ago, but it was not particularly popular. “The epidemic is encouraging more people to try it,” said Zhou Chen, deputy general manager of the company.
The push for online memorials promises other benefits to Chinese communist leaders. This gives mourners an outlet other than social media, where many have opposed the authorities’ manipulation of the coronavirus and where censors have removed content they consider to be disrupting social stability. It also means fewer people coming together in groups, often a source of concern for authoritarian leaders in the country.
“Funerals are a sad time, and families can blame local officials for a sudden death, whether it be a car accident or an epidemic,” said Andrew Kipnis, professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who wrote a book on Chinese. urban funeral.
“Many political movements start with a martyr. There is a strong relationship between mourning and grievance, “said Kipnis, noting that the death of a senior party official, banned for his liberal views, sparked the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
As the disparity between the official Chinese record and the actual death toll draws attention, such political concerns will only become more urgent for Chinese leaders.
Already, Wuhan families are complaining about the lack of space to cry.
Chinese families “can do nothing but swallow their grief and indignation,” said Wu Akou, a woman from Wuhan who stood in line for hours to collect the ashes, in an online message that since been deleted.
” I do not understand. We are allowed to publish articles on tragedies in other countries, but not on photos of deceased family members, “she wrote, adding that Chinese leaders are trying to” whitewash “the truth about epidemic.