Editor’s note: All names in this report are pseudonyms chosen by the interviewees who are concerned for their safety.
The Qingming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, is here and Zhang Jun has not yet collected his father's cremated ashes from the Wuchang Funeral Parlor.
There is a Chinese saying, “Burial brings peace to the deceased” and the thought of his 76-year-old father in that cold funeral home, still wandering like a lonely ghost, made tears roll down his face.
Zhang’s father died Feb. 1 from COVID-19. After the death, Zhang had trouble sleeping. In the middle of the night, he thought he heard someone calling: "Son, why don't you come and pick up your dad? You don’t want him anymore?”
Every single day, Zhang wants to bring his father's ashes home. He has a lot to say to him.
In early March, he called the funeral home, one of the eight in Wuhan where the virus emerged late last year. He was told that he had to wait for a notice from the city’s Epidemic Prevention and Control Command Center. He called again in mid-March. The response was the same--wait for the government's notice.
Finally, at the end of March, Zhang was told he could collect the ashes.
But he didn't want to go.
According to regulations issued by the local authorities, representatives of the deceased’s work unit must accompany family members of those who died of COVID-19 when they go to the funeral house. If the deceased didn’t have a work unit, representatives from the community must accompany the family. As Zhang explained the new rules for VOA Mandarin he emphasized that "accompany” meant picking up the ashes, then making sure the remains were buried immediately.
"My father passed away, this is my family's affair. I go to collect the ashes, this is also my family's affair," he said. “Arranging someone from the work unit to accompany me, it feels like I’m being monitored. I’m disgusted by this.”&
VOA reached out to the listed spokesperson for the Wuhan Civil Affairs Bureau, Section Chief Dai, multiple times to verify this with the assistance of a bureau operator. The calls ended with recorded music. “We have only one spokesperson,” the operator said. ”Try calling later.”
Since the pneumonia-like symptoms that were later recognized as COVID-19 were detected in late 2019, the Chinese government has publicly reported about 82,000 confirmed cases and 3,322 deaths, with Wuhan enduring about 2,500 of those deaths. But many, including the U.S. intelligence community have suggested that Beijing is covering up the real toll.
Last week, photos of long lines and stacks of urns at Wuhan’s Hankou Funeral House circulated online just long enough to raise more questions about the official count before Chinese authorities removed them.
A Chinese reporter who managed to get into the Hankou Funeral House described the scene to VOA. Security was very tight, with more staff, police, security guards, community social workers and volunteers than family members, the reporter said. Inside the funeral home, he recognized several plainclothes police officers and saw them approaching mourners who attempted to take photos of the scene with their cellphones or tried to strike up a conversation with others.
In much the same way it is attempting to quash questions about its response to the epidemic by cracking down on critics, Beijing is attempting to maintain control over funerals, moving them along quickly to keep numbness from becoming anger.
When PL finally received the urn holding his father’s ashes from the Hankou Funeral House after queuing for an hour and a half on March 27, he cried. He last saw his 78-year-old father two months ago.
PL, 43, spends most of his time occupied with business in Hong Kong and Malaysia and rarely returns to his hometown Wuhan. He believes his father was infected with COVID-19 during a routine physical examination at Wuhan Union Medical College Hospital in mid-January.
PL buried his father’s ashes at the government-run Biandanshan Cemetery, the cemetery closest to the city. His father’s name on the tomb was scrawled in black marker. So many people have died within such a short time that names won’t be carved in stone for another few months.
PL had selected the tomb two days before from the three available price ranges: 20,000 RMB ($2,823), 50,000 RMB ($7,057) and nearly 100,000 RMB ($14,115). These are the special 30% off prices for families of those who died of COVID-19. They also receive one-time condolence cash payments of 3000 RMB ($423 USD).
"To be honest, the 3,000 yuan from the government doesn’t help at all. These tombs are so expensive, they are making a fortune from the dead," PL told VOA.
He added, "Many people are saying they can't afford to die. When the pillars of the family are gone, it’s hard to make a living for those who got left behind. How can they afford a tomb?”
That day, PL was “accompanied” by people from his father’s work unit. They took pictures of PL placing his father’s urn in the tomb. Before PL left the cemetery, the work unit representatives asked him to sign a form that stated the burial process was complete. It included so much detailed information about PL and his father, PL thought the authorities had undertaken a thorough investigation of him.
"Is this a burial? This is nothing more than monitoring. They are performing a political task -- a task of maintaining stability," he told VOA.
"Throughout this whole process -- from checking-in at the hospital, getting treated, to passing away and burial -- we feel confused and there is no dignity,” he said.
Many families who lost loved ones in the epidemic have had similar experiences: phone calls and home visits from the community social workers and work units. The authorities seem to have more interest in seeing the deceased buried than in the survivors weathering grief.
“Why do we have to go through you? Why can’t we bury them by ourselves?” World Peace asked. “You don’t show any sympathy toward our loss.”
World Peace lost her mother to the coronavirus. The 66-year-old fell ill on the second day of the Lunar New Year, Jan. 26. Weeks into the outbreak, hospital beds were extremely limited. She was forced to stay at home until after four days her hands began to shake. She was rushed to the hospital where the doctor said it was too late, her lungs were all white. In COVID-19 patients, radiologists can see cloudy areas form on the outside edge of the lungs. As the infection worsens, the clouds form clusters and slowly turn white as breathing becomes difficult for the patient.
After a few days of palliative treatment, she passed away.
Two months after her mother’s death, 40-year-old World Peace wails like a child from time to time. She says she is crying for her mother, and for Wuhan. “China has the best people and the worst government.”
She joined a WeChat group formed by people who had also lost loved ones in the epidemic. Zhang was among them.
While many people are saddened by their loss, they are angry too, Zhang told VOA they want the government to offer explanations.
“My father’s death was not a normal death. He died of a man-made disaster,” Zhang said. “We demand that the names of those who deceived us, who covered it up, those so-called officials and experts to be published. Otherwise, we are not able to explain it to our dead relatives.”
The authorities viewed the WeChat group as a thorn in the eye. Many group members told VOA they have received threatening phone calls from the police. On the last day of March, two police officers knocked on the door of the man who established the group. They took away his cellphone and forcibly disbanded the group.
For the past week or so, cherry blossoms have been casting white-pink clouds throughout the city. The Wuhan University campus, a favored viewing site, is empty.
Chinese media have reported Beijing’s plan to remember the COVID-19 dead on Tomb-Sweeping Day. People have been requested to be silent for three minutes starting at 10 a.m. as horns and alarms sound throughout the county. “It's a show they put on for the world to watch. If we as family members of the dead are not allowed to participate, what kind of mourning is that?”
Zhang wants to leave Wuhan and head south. The city broke his heart, he said. One day he will return—on the day he can collect his father’s ashes and bury him without being watched by strangers.
Zhang said this was his plan as a son trying to defend the final dignity of his father.