Author: BAO Zhiming, Photographer: DING Gang (Caixin)
Translator: COVID-19 Readings
The Wuhan COVID-19 Epidemic Prevention and Control Headquarter issued a notice saying that the Qingming Festival is coming, to prevent the spread of the epidemic due to concentrated sacrificial sweeping and to protect the health and safety of the people, live sacrificial sweeping services will be suspended during the 2020 Qingming period. Instead, there will be collective sacrificial sweeping services and online sacrificial sweeping services.
At 8 am on March 26, Liu Ping (a pseudonym), who lives on Hanzheng Street, accompanied by community staff, came to Hankou Funeral Home in Wuhan and joined a long line. The afternoon before, she received a notice that she could come here to collect the ashes of her deceased father.
The long line of nearly 200 meters at Hankou Funeral Home, two persons in a row, wound from the gate of Jingya Hall of the funeral home to the front of Ganhe Hall on the east side. Since Wuhan opened up ash collection from funeral homes on March 23 for people who died during the COVID-19 epidemic, similar queuing phenomena have appeared at various funeral homes and public cemeteries.
Jingya Hall of Hankou Funeral Home is where the relatives of the deceased go through funeral procedures and collect ashes. Only one relative of each deceased can enter the hall. Liu Ping first picked up a number from the numbering machine, then submitted to the staff the death burial certificate, ID card of the deceased, her own ID card and other documents, and filled out a form. After completing these matters, Liu Ping received a ticket, with which she could receive an empty ash box for free, and wait for being called in the lobby. The ash boxes came in three different styles, Xiuyu, Lantian and Chuanbai jade. Liu Ping chose Chuanbai jade, which was the color that her father preferred during his lifetime.
Liu Ping’s father had been hospitalized for a brain tumor. The hospital emptied the ward at the end of January to treat patients with COVID-19. Her father could only go home, but there was no way to treat him at home, and his father’s illness got worse and worse. At the beginning of March, when the hospital resumed the outpatient clinic, her father was able to be readmitted, but it was too late and he died a few days later. “This disease is really awful. Although my father didn’t die of COVID-19, he was indirectly killed by it.”
It wasn’t until 2pm that Liu Ping’s number was called. She submitted the filled materials and the empty urn at the “ash distribution” window. Not long after, the “ash distribution” window handed Liu Ping the urn wrapped in red cloth and covered with yellow cloth. A volunteer waiting at the side held a black umbrella and sent Liu Ping out of the hall. Throughout the process, the hall was very quiet, and occasionally a slight sob was heard. “My tears have long run dry, now I just want to properly finish my father’s funeral affairs.” Liu Ping said.
Wuhan currently has eight funeral homes including Hankou Funeral Home, Wuchang Funeral Home, Qingshan Funeral Home, Caidian Funeral Home, Huangpi Funeral Home, Xinzhou Funeral Home, Jiangxia Funeral Home, and Hui People’s Funeral Home. The staff at Hankou Funeral Home said that the reason why many relatives of the deceased had to wait five or six hours to get called was because they had not made an appointment beforehand. The funeral home had too many ashes and was understaffed. It took a lot of time to find the ashes. “The best way is to make an appointment online, then you can receive the ashes within at most an hour or two.”
A staff member revealed that during the busiest time in February, the funeral home had to work 19 hours a day, and every male employee was called to carry bodies, “too many”. He said, “The superior asked us to distribute all the ashes before Ching Ming (April 4), so that the deceased could settle into the earth as soon as possible. Some of them died of COVID-19 and others died for different reasons.”
When Liu Ping received the urn and went out, a large truck stopped at the west entrance of Jingya Hall. On the truck were urns ordered by Hankou Funeral Home. The driver stated that he had carried over 2,500 urns in his truck, and had already unloaded a truck yesterday. A dozen male staff from the funeral home came to the large truck and moved the urns to the side hall of Jingya Hall for storage, 500 urns per stack, currently at seven stacks total.
At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, a thunderstorm with pouring rain came over Wuhan, and a small truckful of the urns had yet to be unloaded. Liu Ping had left in a car after receiving the ashes. An old lady was still waiting in the rain by the side road where people had lined up in the morning. Everyone tried to convince her to go to the car to get out of the rain, but the old lady said that she and her partner had been married for more than 60 years, and they had never been separated for such a long time. Her partner had been gone for so long this time, she must wait for him to come out at the nearest place. The relatives could only raise their umbrellas and continue to wait.
At 4 pm, when Caixin reporters left the funeral home, they saw there were still relatives of the deceased coming to collect the ashes, and the number from the numbering machine had reached beyond 230. The on-site staff said that the number of online appointments was also approximately this many.
As of March 26, the number of officially announced COVID-19 cases by Wuhan was 50006, with 2531 deaths. A local emergency doctor from a class III hospital told Caixin reporters that during the epidemic, especially in the 20 days from late January to early February, due to insufficient nucleic acid testing, his hospital had almost the same number of suspected COVID-19 case deaths as confirmed case deaths during the same period, and when it comes to the numbers of home deaths and other non-COVID-19 deaths, only the street and Civil Affairs Department have them.
On March 24, Caixin reporters saw at Biandanshan Cemetery in Hanyang District that family members of the deceased who were handling the burials lined up outside the cemetery. The price of each tomb in the cemetery ranges from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of yuan, while COVID-19 victims can receive a 30% discount. According to a document obtained by the reporters, the number of deaths during the epidemic in Yongfeng Street, Hanyang District was 69. The data shows that there are 108 street offices, 21 towns, 15 boroughs, 1107 communities, and 2033 administrative villages in the 13 municipal districts of Wuhan.
On March 26, the Wuhan COVID-19 Epidemic Prevention and Control Headquarter issued a notice saying that the Qingming Festival is coming, to prevent the spread of the epidemic due to concentrated sacrificial sweeping and to protect the health and safety of the people, live sacrificial sweeping services will be suspended during the 2020 Qingming period. Instead, there will be collective sacrificial sweeping services and online sacrificial sweeping services. The notice shows that funeral halls, cemeteries, ash halls throughout the city shall temporarily suspend crowd gathering activities such as spirit guarding, farewell, and sacrificial sweep. The reopening time is presently determined to be no earlier than April 30; the Civil Affairs Department will centrally arrange for cemetery personnel to hold mass sacrifice ceremony for the deceased buried in the cemetery, for funeral home personel to hold mass sacrifice ceremony for the deceased whose ashes were deposited at the funeral home; for cemetery management agencies to provide free online sacrificial sweeping services. The relatives of the deceased can log in to the cemeteries’ online platforms with real names for sacrificial sweeping.