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China curtails memorials during tomb-sweeping festival

Graves at a cemetery in Yangzhou in China’s eastern Jiangsu province, ahead of the annual Tomb Sweeping Day.
Graves at a cemetery in Yangzhou in China’s eastern Jiangsu province, ahead of the annual Tomb Sweeping Day.AFP/Getty Images

For at least two millennia, Chinese people have headed to their ancestors’ graves on the 15th day after the spring equinox to remove weeds and brush away dirt, to offer food and wine and paper money so Grandma and Grandpa can enjoy the afterlife.

Saturday is Tomb-Sweeping Day. But few will be tending to graves this year, despite many recent coronavirus fatalities. Thousands of families, especially those in the outbreak’s epicenter of Wuhan, have been unable to bury their dead.

‘‘No one in the family got to say goodbye to Grandpa or see his face one last time,’’ said Gao Yingwei, an IT worker in Wuhan whose grandfather, Gao Shixu, succumbed to the novel coronavirus on Feb. 7. The 76-year-old died at home; funeral-home staff in hazmat suits came to collect his body, telling the family it would be cremated immediately.

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‘‘To this day, we have no idea how his body was handled, where his ashes are, or when we will be able to pick them up,’’ Gao said. ‘‘I don’t even know which funeral parlor those guys were from.’’

Adding to the angst, tomb-sweeping rituals — when huge crowds flock to cemeteries — have been either banned or severely curtailed by authorities nationwide. While a limited number of mourners with reservations will be allowed into graveyards in Beijing and Shanghai, there will be no such gatherings in Wuhan, where the municipal government has banned funeral ceremonies and tomb-sweeping until at least May.

This is ostensibly because of health issues but also reflects Beijing’s political desire, experts say, to deny emotional families the chance to get together and complain about the government’s handling of the outbreak, a matter of acute sensitivity for the ruling Communist Party.

The coronavirus pandemic ravaging the globe officially claimed 2,563 lives in Wuhan, where it began in a market that sold exotic animals for consumption. But evidence emerging from the city as it stirs from its two-month hibernation suggests the real death toll is much higher.

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Long lines have been forming at funeral homes in Wuhan over the past two weeks, as family members have been informed they may collect their loved ones’ remains ahead of Tomb-Sweeping Day. Some waited six hours to collect an urn, then the ashes.

The Hankou Funeral Parlor’s crematorium was operating 19 hours a day, with male staff enlisted to help carry bodies. In just two days, the home received 5,000 urns, the magazine Caixin reported.

Using photos posted online, social media sleuths have estimated that Wuhan funeral homes had returned 3,500 urns a day since March 23. That would imply a death toll in Wuhan of about 42,000 — or 16 times the official number. Another widely shared calculation, based on Wuhan’s 84 furnaces running nonstop and each cremation taking an hour, put the death toll at 46,800.

Wuhan residents say the activities belie the official statistics. ‘‘It can’t be right . . . because the incinerators have been working round the clock, so how can so few people have died?’’ a man, identified only by his surname of Zhang, told Radio Free Asia.

US intelligence agencies have reportedly concluded that China’s numbers are much lower than they are in reality.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Thursday that China has been open and transparent about the coronavirus outbreak, and accused US officials of making ‘‘shameless’’ comments casting doubt on Beijing’s accounting of the toll.

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Public cemeteries in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province have said their staff will sweep tombs during the memorial period, and some private funeral companies are offering to tend to graves for paying customers, who can watch it live-streamed.

But this robs Chinese families not only of the chance to honor their deceased, but also a rare opportunity to get together for an outing, eating and talking and traveling side by side.

As China has developed, metropolises have built cemeteries on their outskirts to preserve urban land. That means tomb-sweeping is a major undertaking for many that involves traveling a long distance, usually bumper-to-bumper, so families make a day of it.

Chinese authorities want none of that this year.

Instead, the Ministry of Civil Affairs has told local authorities to ‘‘make full use’’ of online funeral ceremonies and online tomb-sweeping, where people can perform electronic bows and make digital offerings. On the Heavenly Cemetery website, for example, customers can upload photos and videos of their deceased relatives and offer them a virtual glass of baijiu liquor, or light a virtual cigar with a virtual lighter for a few cents.

Fu Shou Yuan, one of China’s largest funeral providers, launched an online tomb-sweeping service a few years ago but it wasn’t particularly popular. ‘‘The epidemic is encouraging more people to have a try,’’ said Zhou Chen, the company’s assistant general manager.