The New Rules For Mourners In Wuhan Have Angered Many Residents | WYPR

The New Rules For Mourners In Wuhan Have Angered Many Residents

Apr 10, 2020
Originally published on April 14, 2020 8:43 pm

More than two months after he watched his father die of the new coronavirus, Zhang Hai has yet to bury him. The 50-year-old Wuhan native wants to pay his last respects alone — but that's now against government rules.

"[My father's] work unit called and made it very clear that I have to be accompanied when I retrieve the ashes," Zhang recalled. "Maybe they are well-intentioned, but I just want to collect my father's ashes alone before burying him. I do not want to have strangers around."

More than 3,300 people have died of COVID-19 in China, as of Friday morning; just over three-fourths of those deaths were in the city of Wuhan. As new cases dwindle and quarantine restrictions ease, the city's weary residents are hoping to publicly mourn their dead, only to face new constraints.

Because of the epidemic and a citywide lockdown, Wuhan crematoriums did not begin releasing the remains of loved ones who died until late March. Shop owners around the Hankou and Nanchang crematoriums, two of the city's largest, told NPR that they saw families waiting in cars, packing the streets in the days leading up to Tomb Sweeping holiday, on April 4 this year, when people pay their respects to the dead. These families formed long lines waiting to pick up ashes.

Anyone who died during the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan was cremated for free, at government expense, regardless of whether they had died of the virus. Grave plots, which average around 40,000 yuan, or $5,660, are also subsidized; some are now 30% off.

But starting April 3, right before a holiday commemorating the dead, Wuhan authorities banned people from freely gathering at cemeteries and crematoriums until the end of the month. In addition, families now must reserve a time with neighborhood officials or workplace supervisors to pick up a loved one's ashes. These officials must also accompany family members to the burial plot.

On paper, the city wants to prevent public gatherings, where the risk of virus transmission is high. Yet many in Wuhan consider these measures as a means to control public expressions of grief, especially as frustration over how local officials initially covered up the outbreak continues to roil.

That has angered residents, like Zhang Hai, who say their final moments with a loved one's remains should be a family affair.

Zhang Lifa, the father of Zhang Hai, in a Wuhan park last year. He spent several years participating in China's nuclear weapons program in the 1960s and suffered life long health consequences from radiation exposure as a result. He died of the coronavirus this year.
Zhang Hai

In mid-January, Zhang took his 76-year-old father, Zhang Lifa, from their home in southern China to Wuhan, where they used to live, seeking medical treatment for a bone fracture. Unknown to him, health authorities in the city were already monitoring an outbreak involving dozens of cases of a mysterious SARS-like pneumonia.

"If the Wuhan government had disclosed more about the virus, I would have never driven my father back," the son told NPR in a Wuhan park, where he frequently brought his father for walks.

The elder Zhang contracted COVID-19 in Wuhan's Central Theater Command Hospital, a special military hospital. He died at 5 p.m. on Feb. 1 with his son by his side.

Zhang Hai, who managed to get into the isolation unit where his father spent his last moments, was able to remove his father's surgical gown and dress his father's body head to toe in new clothes, as tradition requires after death. "At the very least, I should restore his dignity before he leaves the world. He was a human being after all," said Zhang.

Other traditions had to be abandoned.

Like everyone in Wuhan who saw a family member die during the outbreak, Zhang was told to arrange a time to pick up and bury his father's ashes this month while accompanied by people from his father's work unit — where his father was employed during the years he lived in the city.

Zhang refused: "There are a few words I would like to say to my father in private."

So now, more than two months after his death, the elder Zhang's ashes still sit in Wuhan's Wuchang Crematorium, unburied, while his son petitions for a final, private moment alone with his father's remains.

"Chinese people are quite reserved. When my father was alive, I couldn't be expressive of my love for him like Westerners," the son said. "This is how I show my love. I cannot just say it out loud.

On Tomb Sweeping Day last Saturday, China observed three minutes of silence across the country to commemorate those who had died from the virus. But authorities remain sensitive about open displays of mourning and dissatisfaction.

Pictures of somber family members waiting in line to pick up their relatives' ashes outside Wuhan's crematoriums went viral on Chinese social media in late March but were quickly deleted. The pictures stoked public debate online about whether China's statistics had severely undercounted the number of deaths because of COVID-19 — an allegation officials have strongly denied.

The day after Zhang met with NPR, two government officials visited his home in Wuhan. He receives constant calls from neighborhood officials reminding him not to talk to the media and demanding to know his location. He believes his phone is being monitored.

Another family who lost a member to the new coronavirus refused to meet with NPR reporters because neighborhood officials installed a camera outside their front door to monitor whenever they left. A third family who created a chat group for other mourning families was accosted by police and forced to delete the group.

A video of the encounter shared with NPR shows two Wuhan police officers confronting the family, who repeatedly explained that they had no "ulterior motives" in creating the group. "I had already said it when you guys called last time. Our group is completely legal and reasonable," one family member says.

Zhang Hai believes his father deserves a proper sendoff befitting a longtime Communist Party member. From 1962 to 1968, the elder Zhang served in China's nuclear weapons project in the 1960s and suffered lifelong health consequences, including deafness in one ear, because of the radiation exposure.

"It is only after his passing did I realize how important he was to me," Zhang said, crying quietly. "When a loved one is gone, that feeling becomes very strong. When I think about him, I get very emotional. I only have one father."

Others are also struggling to make sense of death that has swept away so many, so quickly in one city.

Wuhan resident Dong Bo's father died of a pneumonia-like illness before he could be tested. Dong is certain he had the coronavirus, because Dong's sister later was confirmed to have COVID-19 and eventually treated in one of the 16 makeshift field hospitals erected during the height of the outbreak in Wuhan.

Last week, he was finally able to retrieve his father's ashes, accompanied by a neighborhood official. He then reserved a time to bury his father. The moment gave him a small measure of closure.

"My mood is more stable. Spring will come eventually," Dong said. "Everything has to get better in the end."

: 4/09/20

A caption in a previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Zhang Lifa as Zhang Linfa.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

How does one grieve during a pandemic? In the Chinese city of Wuhan, it's done under constant government supervision. NPR's Emily Feng is in Wuhan, where she spoke to families struggling to mourn loved ones who've died of COVID-19.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Zhang Hai is wracked with guilt. In mid-January, the Wuhan native took his 76-year-old father, Zhang Lifa, from southern China, where he works, to Wuhan, seeking medical treatment for a bone fracture. Unbeknownst to him, health authorities there were already monitoring an outbreak involving dozens of cases of a SARS-like pneumonia.

ZHANG HAI: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: If the Wuhan government had disclosed more about the virus, Zhang says, he would've never driven his father back. Instead, the elder Zhang contracted COVID-19 in Wuhan's Central Theater Command Hospital, a special military hospital. He died February 1 with his son by his side.

ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Zhang managed to dress his father with new clothes head to toe, per Chinese tradition. He says he wanted to restore his father's dignity before he left this world, like a human being deserves. Other traditions, like burning paper money together, had to be abandoned.

Because of the coronavirus epidemic, Wuhan crematoriums didn't even begin releasing the remains of loved ones who died until late March. Anyone who died during the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, like Zhang's father, was cremated for free at government expense, regardless of whether they died of the virus. Grave plots are also subsidized. Some are now 30% off. But there's a catch.

ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Like everyone in Wuhan, Zhang had to arrange a time to pick up his father's ashes this month while accompanied by neighborhood officials or workplace supervisors. These officials are also required to accompany the family member to the burial plot. Zhang refused to do so.

ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: He told the officials he wanted to send his father off himself, without strangers around, so he could be at peace. After all, in his mind, if it hadn't been for him, his father would still be alive. So now, more than two months after his death, the elder Zhang's ashes lie unburied in a mortuary.

ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: "Chinese people are quite reserved," Zhang says. Taking care of his father, sending him off - this is how he wants to show his love, even if he couldn't say the words out loud when his father was alive.

Wuhan's government wants to prevent public gatherings, where the risk of virus transmission is high. So starting April 3, right before a holiday commemorating the dead, they banned people from freely gathering at cemeteries and crematoriums until the end of the month. They also want to control public expressions of grief, especially as anger over how local officials initially covered up the outbreak continues to roil the country.

Zhang Hai believes his father needs a send-off befitting of the Communist Party member who served his country. In the 1960s, he says his father participated in China's nuclear weapons project and suffered radiation exposure.

ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Zhang says he, his father and grandfather - they all loved their country.

The day after Zhang met with NPR, two government officials visited his home in Wuhan. He gets constant calls from neighborhood officials reminding him not to talk to media and demanding to know his location. He believes his phone is being monitored. Another family NPR tried to interview refused to meet because they had a camera installed by neighborhood officials outside their front door, monitoring them. A third family created a chat group for other mourning families. They were accosted by police and forced to disband the group.

But Zhang says he will continue his fight to bury his father alone. He says he owes that to his father.

ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: It was only after he died that Zhang realized how important his father was to him, he says. You feel their absence strongly. A person only ever has one father. Later, we take a walk through the Wuhan park that Zhang frequently brought his father to. He points out the bridge where he took a picture of his father on only last year. The scenery is still the same, he sighs, but the person he was once with is no longer here.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Wuhan.

(SOUNDBITE OF AKIRA KOSEMURA'S "DNA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.