Dead Men Walking

goddess of corpse dressers
Guanyin, China, Yuan dynasty. Museum Rietberg, Zurich. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Immortal Xia was a corpse dresser. She used to ply her trade around the coal mines near Jincheng. Whenever a mining accident occurred, Immortal Xia would appear dressed in strange robes like a witch.

Some locals called her Queen Mother Guanyin, after the Buddhist bodhisattva of mercy and compassion. Immortal Xia didn’t mind caring for the corpses of miners. She thought they were more handsome than the living men in the bathhouses.

Funerals

The Chinese take their dead seriously. Whether you live in Taipei, Los Angeles, or Shenzhen, a funeral is an elaborate affair. You must invite the extended family, close friends, business associates, important acquaintances, and honorary guests. If you’re wealthy, you may also hire professional mourners who will wail and bang drums to signal your loved one’s passing.

corpse house
Joss paper houses for sale in Hong Kong. Image credit: VictoriaDFong [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

This is a great improvement over the days when the funeral of an emperor involved burying his entire living household, too. And it’s easier than creating an imperial household out of terracotta.

Today, mourners bring paper: money, food, even miniature houses. You burn these items to ease the afterlife of the dearly departed.

But before you can consider a funeral, you need someone like Immortal Xia to prepare the corpse.

Corpse Preservation

When Immortal Xia disappeared from Jincheng, Mortician Liu took up her task. He found it almost impossible to clean a miner’s corpse of the coal dust that had settled in every pore. The face, the hands, and any open wounds were particularly hard to tackle. Even a good scrubbing with a towel dipped in laundry detergent sent miners to their coffins looking like raccoons.

Some mining accidents involved dozens of bodies. To be a corpse dresser under those circumstances required a strong stomach.

Whether their bodies were intact or shattered to pieces, their final resting place was a woven plastic bag, the colorful kind that you can see for sale at any street-side shop. Mortician Liu put a piece of clothing inside, saying, “That barely resembles a person anymore, it’s more like a pile of stuff.” The chunks of coal couldn’t be separated out, so everything was just stuffed in together.

Sometimes there wasn’t even a colorful plastic bag. Mortician Liu would pack that “pile of stuff” into the bucket used for coal and haul it up the mine shaft to the ground level.

Ma Jinyu, translated by Kate Costello, “Searching for Bodies” in China Channel, 18 Apr 2019

Immortal Xia and Mortician Liu washed and re-shaped each corpse. They need something for the families to identify, bury, and mourn.

Land of the Unburied

novel about a wandering corpse
The Seventh Day by Yu Hua. Image source: Penguin Random House

Yang Fei is a corpse with no one to wash or re-shape his face. He is the protagonist in The Seventh Day by Chinese novelist Yu Hua.

Yu’s version of the afterlife looks very much like day-to-day life in China.

In the funeral parlor, the ordinary dead must sit in plastic chairs bolted to the floor while the VIPs lounge in overstuffed armchairs. You wait until your number is called for your turn in the cremation oven.

The dead compare prices. They rebuke their widows and widowers for failing to secure a better deal. The dead enjoy griping about the cost of dying.

In graveyards that were terribly crowded, despite their remote location, a square-yard plot still cost you thirty thousand yuan – and with a guaranteed tenure of only twenty-five years. […] By that time the price of a grave plot would most likely have reached astronomical levels, and if their family couldn’t afford to pay out for a renewal of the lease, their ashes would simply end up as fertilizer.

Yu Hua, translated by Allan H. Barr, The Seventh Day (Anchor Books 2016)

Yang Fei has no urn, no burial plot. There’s nowhere for his corpse to go. So he wanders, meeting others like him unable to be buried. A family bulldozed by a government demolition team, a girl who commits suicide over an iPhone, protestors killed opposing a land grab.

The Long Dead

Where do these bodies go if they can’t be buried? Here is where the story grows truly Kafkaesque. Professor Qin Shao has found documented incidents of hundreds and sometimes thousands of unclaimed corpses across China. They’re called the long-term residents of China’s funeral and hospital facilities, a floating population.

The accumulation of all these dead bodies has created a number of problems. First, corpses take up space, causing hospitals and morgues to outsource the bodies to private unregulated businesses. Corpses once housed in a Shan’xi county hospital ended up in a cave cum morgue. Second, keeping corpses requires refrigeration and thus expensive electricity. In Xinxiang, preserving one corpse cost a funeral home 550,000 yuan (or more than 80,000 US dollars).

The process for releasing a corpse is both simple and opaque. While there are numerous regulations restricting earth burials, there are almost none as to the handling of a corpse, let alone an abandoned one. Attempts by local and provincial governments to promulgate rules to fill this gap have not helped. Local public security bureaus are unwilling to cremate unclaimed corpses, for fear of lawsuits by the family.

The Unclaimed Corpse

Qin offers four explanations for this corpse accumulation.

Unidentified corpses (for example, the homeless, migration workers, or victims of a crime) is one. The second concerns bodies kept in storage due to an ongoing criminal investigation. The third involves family disputes over the responsibility for the burial. The fourth situation is more complex.

Qin Shao, “The Lingering Corpse in the Chinese Urban.” The Study, International Institute of Asian Studies, Leiden, the Netherlands, No. 81, October, 2018.

Some hospitals will withhold newborn babies and fresh corpses until the family pays all medical fees due. In other instances, the clash is between the family and the government. In the early 2000s, the Shanghai city government evicted an old lady from her home. The family protested. When granny died, the family refused to cremate the body until the eviction dispute was resolved.

That night, the body disappeared. When the family reported her body missing, local authorities admitted that they had taken the body away but have since refused to give them any specifics.

Idem

In other words, a corpse as negotiation tool.

A Needle and a Hammer

Old Man Liang is the new corpse dresser in Jincheng. He has a reputation for being fast.

Old Man Liang’s proudest accomplishment was sewing a man back together from five or six pieces in the space of three hours. Seven or eight years ago, he and a partner had fixed up 23 miners.

Ma Jinyu

Sometimes, the bodies would come to him in an advanced state of rigor mortis. More than once, Old Man Liang has resorted to using a hammer to keep a corpse inside his coffin.

These days, business isn’t so good. The mines have tightened their safety regulations, thus cutting down on the number and scope of accidents. Old Man Liang must survive on cancer and old age. But the tools of his trade remain the same.

He made the big needle that he used himself, grinding down the spoke of a bicycle wheel into a point. He showed the needle to me and I saw that there was already some rust on it. This was his most powerful tool. Most bodies needed a preservative treatment, and he dispensed it himself from a white plastic five-liter bucket. This bucket was usually stored under the chicken coop in the yard.

Idem

It’s enough to keep any dead man walking.

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