Working with the dead

By Catherine Liu

A security guard in his 30s dressed in a typical uniform in China notices children playing outside the Galaxy Garden Funeral Home in Guangzhou. “Smiling is forbidden here, and you should keep quiet,” the guard told the young children.

Even though funeral parlors are solemn places with mostly older people working there, more young workers have decided to join this industry.

In cities such as Changsha, Wuhan, Beijing, Chongqing and Fujian, colleges are introducing a degree in funeral management and other aspects of the business.

At the Changsha Social Work College, there are two majors. One is modern funeral technology and management, and the other is garden engineering technology, including cemetery design and administration.

Wang Yuecheng, 23, who majored in cosmetics, graduated one and a half years ago from the college. He works at a funeral home in Changsha.

“My family supports me no matter what happened, so I did not meet opposition when I told them about my preference to learn this unexpected specialty,” Wang said. “I could easily get a job after graduation, and the salary is okay.” He earns $700 a month.

After working for over four years, he hardly feels emotionally attached to it. “It is a job.”

Taking remains from the hospital morgue is a part of Wang’ s work. He is mainly in charge of making bodies look better, especially the face, particularly those who died in traffic accidents or committed suicide.

“Sometimes the relatives of the dead think the bodies after being made up look nothing like themselves,” Wang said. “That’ s because we make up with oil paint.” There could be condensation when warm, humid air comes into contact with the cold surface of the corpse, so conventional cosmetics do not work.

Wang’ s work can cause some problems when it comes to relationships. “Parents or girls are not willing to have a relationship with people working in a funeral parlor,” Wang said.

His mother has arranged many blind dates for him. In the beginning, he went. But he soon gave up on trying to find a relationship.

Another funeral worker, Cai Lei, who has been in the workforce for nearly six months, does not seem to care about much. He was assigned to the funeral major, which his parents did not like.

“I do not have any feeling as to my job. Being without a girlfriend is not a big deal,” Cai said.

Zou Zongxiang works at a funeral home in Guangdong Province.


Zou Zongxiang, 24, majored in cremation and works at a funeral home in Shaoguan in Guangdong Province.

“I work for the money,” he said with a smile. His parents just asked whether he was afraid of working in the funeral industry. They supported him without hesitation when he made the decision. “They think it is a way to build hidden virtue,” Zou said.

When he cremated a body for the first time, he admitted he was frightened. But he became more experienced and got a more profound understanding of life and death, he said.

Besides, Zou said young people are willing to work in the funeral home, but the funeral home rarely recruit them. They employ the middle-aged workers and do not fire these people until they retire. Therefore, there are not so many jobs as people thought for young people.

One female student, Jiang Ting, got a job as an attendant in a funeral parlor in Cangnan, Zhejiang Province, not long after she graduated from the college. While male students get their parents’ support easily, it is harder for a girl. But she insisted and persuaded her family.

Jiang still remembers what she told her family three years ago. “Everyone will die one day. We are not able to control the time. They need people to serve them and accompany their beloved families,” Jiang said calmly. Her parents eventually supported her choice.

At the Galaxy Garden Funeral Home, the children came back to play despite the guard’ s warning during a funeral service. The innocence of childhood is unlikely to change anything soon, but workers in the funeral homes are changing as more young people are working there.

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