In Shenzhen, a young city with a young population, less than one in three of those who die is of pensionable age and more than half of the 800-1,000 unidentified corpses each year is of a young person. The city sees 13,000 deaths each year, less than half the figure in Guangzhou. Corpses are sent to Shenzhen Funeral Home in the Shawan Stretch of the Shenhui Highway in Longgang’s Buji Subdistrict, where all those who die in the city are entitled to a free cremation.
Shenzhen Funeral Home, via Google Images
Southern Metropolis Daily caught up with three employees of the funeral home to ask them what their lives are like. They spoke of the requests that families make such as having an old spinster buried in a wedding dress, the difficulty of restoring badly mutilated bodies to their original appearance, and the prejudices they encounter in daily life such as friends refusing to invite them to weddings and cab drivers refusing to take them to work.
Master Zhu, 20 years experience, responsible for making up corpses to be presented to families
What kind of cosmetic products do you use?
We use the same kind of face paint that is used in television and theatre, this way the color doesn’t fade. Most of the corpses have been frozen and will shed water as they defrost, so ordinary cosmetic products are not suitable.
What procedures are involved in the making up process?
Most of the work is done on the face, cleaning it and restoring it to its original appearance. We dab the face in cotton and use tweezers to clean out the oral cavity. Then we add make-up.
Do families tend to have special requests?
Of course. Here in Guangdong people like to place cash on the corpse, including putting coins in the mouth that can be retrieved after the corpse has been cremated.
Do families have specific requests about make-up such as giving the body smoky eyes?
Not really. The make-up on most corpses is very simple. We add powder to match their skin colour and sometimes use lipstick and blusher.
What other kinds of requests do families have?
The families will show pictures from the deceased’s life and ask me to make them look like they did when they were in their prime. But dead people aren’t alive. At this point the industry isn’t advanced enough to give every family the appearance they want for the deceased.
Most corpses wear a Chinese-style shroud when they are sent off. Is this mandatory?
No, the deceased can wear whatever the family requests. Tang Dynasty-style attire is common, as are Mao suits and ceremonial robes, then some just choose to have their loved ones wear casual clothes. Once there was a woman who was cremated in a wedding dress. The family told me she was a spinster, so if she went to the next life in a wedding dress she might be able to get married there.
Do you feel different when you receive the corpse of an especially young or beautiful person?
Sometimes it’s saddening, but I’ve seen too many corpses over the many years I’ve been doing this and, to tell the truth, the ones in their twenties are the easiest to make up.
Were you scared when you first saw a dead body?
I remember early in my career, it would have been the mid-1990s, there was an air crash over Shenzhen. Our funeral home received all the charred corpses. There were about 30 of them, mostly Thais. That was a scary experience. But since then I have acclimatized to the job and am pretty much imperturbable.
Even when you see a mutilated corpse?
The first question on my mind is how do I restore the appearance.
Are those cases very time-consuming?
The process is like a jigsaw puzzle, putting the bones, skin and organs back together again. One time when a 10 year-old had been crushed to death by a dump truck, I took 10 hours to make the poor kid look decent again for his family.
We work with other funeral homes in Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Shanghai to stay at the cutting-edge and make sure we are using the best available technology.
Are some corpses impossible to restore?
If a body has been left rotting for too long, then we just have to cremate them straight away.
What are the key skills required in your line of work?
You need an understanding of fine art as well as anatomy. When we were training, we had to study sculpture and even some psychology. We work a lot with schools and colleges to make sure we are providing the best service and attracting the most capable people.
Most people get their understanding of your profession from the 2008 Japanese movie “Departures”, but it seems the reality is somewhat different.
Films tend to romanticize things. We are currently unable to offer anything as customized as what is portrayed in that movie. There are 12 cosmetic professionals at our funeral parlour, broken up into three teams. We deal with 40 corpses a day on average and never get more than half an hour of rest on a working day. Our work is pressured so we cannot always offer the precision we would like to.
The funeral of 19 year-old Xing Dan, who had long been a local celebrity for her charity work before perishing in a road accident in 2011, held at Shenzhen Funeral Home, image via iFeng
If you one day receive the corpse of a person who you knew and cared about, how would you feel?
This isn’t really possible. If it really were someone close to me, then I already would have been informed of their death. If this highly unlikely scenario did actually occur, I would choose to leave the work to a colleague.
Mr. Zeng, who is responsible for carrying out cremations
Do all corpses need to be frozen? Can some be sent straight to the funeral parlour and cremated?
First we need the deceased’s death certificate and I.D. card and for their next of kin to verify their identity for the death to be processed at our front desk. Only then will we start making up or cremating the corpse.
I read that one time your funeral parlour had a mix up and ending up giving one person’s remains to the wrong family so the family insisted on cremating several bodies together to make sure. Is this possible?
This would have been caused by an error at some other point of the chain, our funeral parlour wouldn’t make this mistake. No story like the one you mentioned has ever happened in Shenzhen. Our incinerator only has the capacity for one coffin at a time and we are highly transparent in everything we do.
Have you ever had a corpse that was too fat to fit in the incinerator?
No, we have a variety of coffin sizes. We also have freezers for different-sized bodies. We once had a Hong Kong bus driver who died suddenly. He weighed around 150 kg, he could only just fit into our biggest freezer.
How long does a cremation normally take place?
Normally an hour to an hour and a half
Master Lv, who has worked in the section where the corpses are frozen for two years
This job must make you really gutsy, are you unafraid of watching horror movies?
I never watch horror movies. Even though I don’t believe in ghosts, I would never meddle in such things.
Has anything really strange ever happened in your work?
Shortly after entering the business, when I was working late, the bodies of three car crash victims were sent to me. As I was putting one of them into the freezer, the electricity suddenly went out, scaring me near to death. When I plucked up the courage to move, I walked out of the room while feeling the walls and eventually found a torch that I could use while putting the bodies into the freezer. When you work around the clock in a job like this, these things will happen.
Workers embalming a corpse, via Southern Metropolis Daily
What do your friends and family think of you doing this job?
When I tell people back in my home town that I work in a funeral home, they think I mean hotel (the two things sound similar in Chinese). There are people with prejudices against what I do. When a friend is holding something like a wedding or a “manyuejiu” （满月酒， a get together held when a baby reaches one month old), sometimes we won’t get invited. Sometimes when we are invited we decide not to go.
The smoke from a crematorium has a very distinct smell that can be off-putting for people who recognize it. Those who drive past our crematorium can see the cloud of smoke from our chimney, even though it is sometimes just from our canteen.
To get a motorbike taxi from our nearest bus station to anywhere else in the vicinity costs 5 yuan. However, to get to our funeral home costs 10. Sometimes taxi drivers refuse to go to our funeral home at all.