“No one in the family got to say goodbye to Grandpa or see his face one last time,” said Gao Yingwei, an IT worker in Wuhan whose grandfather, Gao Shixu, apparently succumbed to the novel coronavirus on Feb. 7. The 76-year-old died at home; funeral workers in hazmat suits came to collect his body, telling the family it would be cremated immediately.
“To this day, we have no idea how his body was handled, where his ashes are or when we will be able to pick them up,” Gao said. “I don’t even know which funeral parlor those guys were from.”
Adding to the angst, tomb-sweeping rituals — when huge crowds flock to cemeteries — have been either banned or severely curtailed by authorities nationwide. While a limited number of mourners with reservations will be allowed into graveyards in Beijing and Shanghai, there will be no such gatherings in Wuhan, where the municipal government has banned funeral ceremonies and tomb-sweeping until at least May.
This is ostensibly because of health issues, but it also reflects Beijing’s political desire, experts say, to deny emotional families the chance to get together and complain about the government’s handling of the outbreak — a matter of acute sensitivity for the ruling Communist Party.
The coronavirus pandemic ravaging the globe officially claimed 2,563 lives in Wuhan, where it began in a market that sold exotic animals for consumption. But evidence emerging from the city as it stirs from its two-month hibernation suggests that the real death toll is exponentially higher.
Long lines have been forming at funeral homes in Wuhan over the past two weeks, as family members have been informed that they may collect their loved ones’ remains ahead of Tomb-Sweeping Day. Some waited six hours to receive an urn, then the ashes.
The Hankou Funeral Home’s crematorium was operating 19 hours a day, with male staffers enlisted to help carry bodies. In just two days, the home received 5,000 urns, the respected magazine Caixin reported.
Using photos posted online, social media sleuths have estimated that Wuhan funeral homes have returned 3,500 urns a day since March 23. That would imply a death toll in Wuhan of about 42,000 — or 16 times the official number. Another widely shared calculation, based on Wuhan’s 84 furnaces running nonstop and each cremation taking an hour, puts the death toll at 46,800.
Wuhan residents say the activities belie the official statistics. “It can’t be right . . . because the incinerators have been working round the clock, so how can so few people have died?” a man identified only by his surname, Zhang, told Radio Free Asia.
U.S. intelligence agencies have reportedly concluded that China’s official numbers are much lower than reality.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Thursday that China has been open and transparent about the coronavirus outbreak, and she accused U.S. officials of making “shameless” comments casting doubt on Beijing’s accounting of the toll.
Deaths not counted
Grandpa Gao had a fever and difficulty breathing for two weeks, but his family could not obtain medical treatment for him. “That was the darkest and the most chaotic time for Wuhan, and it was every man for himself,” his grandson said.
Gao was never tested for the coronavirus, but his family has no doubt that the novel pathogen led to his death. His wife fell sick later in February, when coronavirus tests became more plentiful, and was confirmed as infected. She remains in the hospital.
Other families in Wuhan report similar experiences.
When 49-year-old Liu Cheng died Feb. 12, officially of a “severe infection in both lungs,” Liu Xiaobo was given a half-hour to get to the care facility where his brother had lived for five years after being paralyzed.
He didn’t make it before his brother was cremated. “It was brutal for us, and what they did lacked the most basic respect for the dead,” Liu said.
Like Grandpa Gao, Liu Cheng is not included in the official coronavirus statistics. “My brother will forever be among the thousands of nameless dead,” Liu Xiaobo said.
Public cemeteries in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province have said their staff will sweep tombs during the memorial period, and some private funeral companies are offering to tend to graves for paying customers, who can watch on a live stream.
But this robs Chinese families not only of a chance to honor their deceased but also a rare opportunity to get together for an outing, eating and talking and traveling side by side.
As China has developed, metropolises have built cemeteries on their outskirts to preserve urban land. That means tomb-sweeping is a major undertaking for many, involving traveling a long distance, usually bumper-to-bumper. So families make a day of it.
Funerals go online
Chinese authorities want none of that this year.
Instead, the Ministry of Civil Affairs has told local authorities to “make full use” of online funeral ceremonies and online tomb-sweeping, where people can perform electronic bows and make digital offerings. On the Heavenly Cemetery website, for example, customers can upload photos and videos of their deceased relatives and offer them a virtual glass of baijiu liquor, or light a virtual cigar with a virtual lighter for a few cents.
Fu Shou Yuan, one of China’s largest funeral providers, launched an online tomb-sweeping service a few years ago, but it wasn’t particularly popular. “The epidemic is encouraging more people to have a try,” said Zhou Chen, the company’s assistant general manager.
The push toward online memorials promises other benefits for China’s Communist rulers. It gives mourners an outlet other than social media, where many have railed against authorities’ handling of the coronavirus and where censors have been deleting content they consider disruptive to social stability. It also means fewer people gathering in groups, often a source of anxiety for the country’s authoritarian leaders.
“Funerals are a sad time, and families might blame local officials for a sudden death, whether it’s a car accident or an epidemic,” said Andrew Kipnis, a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has written a book about Chinese urban funerals.
“Many political movements start with a martyr. There is a strong relationship between grieving and grievance,” Kipnis said, noting that the death of a top party official, banished for his liberal views, provided the spark for the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
As the disparity between China’s official and real death toll draws scrutiny, such political concerns will only become more urgent for China’s leaders.
Already, Wuhan families are complaining about the lack of space to mourn.
Chinese families “can do nothing but swallow their grief and indignation,” said Wu Akou, a Wuhan woman who lined up for hours to collect ashes, in an online post that has since been deleted.
“I don’t get it. We’re allowed to post about other countries’ tragedies, but not photos of our own dead family members,” she wrote, adding that Chinese leaders were trying to “whitewash” the truth about the epidemic.