- Stephen McDonell
- From BBC News in Shanxi (China)
7 hours ago
Demand for coffins has exploded in some rural areas
Coffin makers in north China’s Shanxi province are very busy. We watch the skilled craftsmen at work carving intricate detail into the freshly cut wood. In the past few months, they say, they haven’t even had time to rest.
A local resident who is a customer of the artisans said the coffins sometimes sell out. With morbid humor, he says that anyone who works in the funeral industry “makes a small fortune.”
There has been much debate about the true death toll from Covid in China after the virus spread to megacities.
About 80% of the population more than a billion people have become infected since China lifted Covid restrictions in December, according to epidemiologist Wu Zunyou. Last weekend, China recorded 13,000 Covidrelated deaths in less than a week, adding to the 60,000 deaths since December.
But these deaths occurred in hospitals. There are only a few medical facilities in rural areas. Those dying at home from Covid are not counted in official statistics.
There is not even an official estimate of the number of deaths in villages and towns. But the BBC has found signs that the death toll is significant and rising.
We visited a crematorium and they too are busy with several funerals every day.
In another village, we saw a man and woman loading tissue paper birds onto the back of a truck. “Those are cranes. After death you ride a crane,” said the woman.
As they loaded the truck with detailed, freshly made Buddhist works on tissue paper, they told us that demand for tomb decorations has exploded in recent days and is two or three times higher than usual.
Everyone we spoke to in this part of Shanxi who is associated with the funeral industry told us a similar story about the increase in deaths. Everyone attributed it to the coronavirus.
Wang Peiwei is determined to give his sisterinlaw a good funeral
“Some sick people were already very weak beforehand,” said one man while continuing to load the truck. “If they get Covid, their aging bodies can’t handle the disease.”
We followed the truck to its destination and found Wang Peiwei, whose sisterinlaw had just died. The deceased had two children and was about 50 years old. She had long been suffering from diabetes when she contracted Covid.
“After contracting Covid, she had a high fever and her organs started to fail. Their immune systems weren’t strong enough to survive,” says Wang.
The courtyard of the family home was decorated for the ceremony. Wang’s husband told us that there would be more artwork and flowers.
In a tent in the yard where the body was buried, he explained that on the day of the funeral, 16 people would carry her coffin and bury her according to local tradition.
He said although the cost of funeral arrangements has skyrocketed due to the number of Covid deaths, they would not hesitate to pay more to honor the relative.
“She was a great person. We need a big event to say goodbye to her as best we can afford,” he said.
Every year, around this time, hundreds of millions of young people return to their hometowns to celebrate the Lunar New Year. It is the most important festival in China.
Many villages are returning to have an older population people who are more vulnerable to Covid.
Millions of people traveled from big cities back to their cities
Authorities fear this year’s mass migration could quickly spread the coronavirus to more remote areas, with devastating effects.
The government has warned people in cities not to go home this year if their elderly relatives have not yet been infected.
Doctor Dong Yongming, owner of a clinic in a small village, believes at least 80% of local residents have already contracted Covid.
“Everyone comes to us when they are sick,” he says. “We are the only clinic here.”
Most of the deceased had previous illnesses, says the doctor.
He manages the village’s medicines and says he only sells medicines to people as they need them.
“For example, I only give four ibuprofen pills per person,” he said. “You don’t need two boxes. That’s a waste.”
He said he believes the worst of the Covid wave is behind us: “We haven’t had any patients for the past few days”.
Those who die in this region are buried in the fields. Farmers then continue to grow crops and raise livestock around their ancestors’ graves.
As we drove down the road, we saw piles of dirt with red flags on them. Lots of hills. A goat farmer confirmed that the graves were new.
“Families bury elderly people here after they die. There are too many dead,” he said.
The fields inland are full of fresh graves
In his village of thousands of people, more than 40 residents died during the last Covid wave.
“One day someone died, the next day someone else. It’s been nonstop for the last month,” he said.
Here in mainland China, people have a philosophical attitude to life and death. One farmer said that people would still celebrate the Lunar New Year as they always have.
“My son and daughterinlaw will be arriving soon,” he said.
I asked if local residents were concerned that the return of loved ones could mean an increase in the number of infections.
“People shouldn’t worry. Don’t worry!” he said. “You will still get infected even if you hide. Most of us have caught it and are fine.”
He and many others hope the worst of the Covid wave is over. And that, at least for now, you can spend your energies spending time with the living instead of burying the dead.