On April 4, Chinese everywhere will honor their deceased loved ones by packing up bags of gifts, flowers and fare to take to their graves as part of Qingming festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, a national holiday of adulation for Chinese ancestors. But the more than 2,500-year-old ancient tradition underscores a crippling theme in much of the now urbanized China: there’s no room.
As Quartz reports, city officials are ramping up efforts to change the perceived importance of grave burials by also offering mass burials at sea for the recently departed on Tomb-Sweeping Day. Cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Jiaxing, in Zhejiang province, are covering costs for transportation, the sea burial and even offering subsidies ranging from $60 to an upwards of $800. This year Shanghai increased its sea-burial subsidy five times more, subsequently leading government officials to add another ship to its sea-burial fleet to meet a growing demand.
(MORE: In Hong Kong, Even the Dead Wait in Line)
The relief is likely welcome for an otherwise pricey undertaking. With more than 9 million residents who are increasingly moving to cities, the densely populated China has trouble keeping up with a demand for burial plots. As TIME reported in 2009, a permanent plot in Hong Kong can cost more than $30,000 while a temporary plot is priced around $3,000, leading some families to send bodies abroad to be buried.
But limited space is not the only problem that the families of China’s departed face. Perhaps spreading remains at sea is the best way to avoid grave robberies, which are also problematic in China. Last month four men were arrested in Shanxi for digging up female bodies to sell for ghost marriages, a ritual of burying recently deceased women alongside dead bachelors so they can be together in the afterlife, TIME reports. Ghost marriages are outlawed in China, but the practice continues in some rural areas where a female body can earn up to $21,000 on the black market, according to state-run Global Times.