A cemetery that celebrates life and death
Yi Hua clearly remembers the morning in 1998 when she arrived at an old building on the Bund wanting to consult with the Shanghai Film Association about the rebuilt monument to Ruan Lingyu, the most celebrated actress from the golden age of Chinese cinema in the 1930s.
Someone opened the door, and shortly after Yi explained she worked for a cemetery, she bashed her forehead on the solid teakwood door slowly closing in front of her. Her head immediately began to swell and tears dripped from her eyes. She silently walked away.
Not only did Yi’s head hurt but also her heart. She was then 30 years old in her third year working in the funeral and interment industry.
Now 52, she is chief brand officer of Fu Shou Yuan International Group. Recalling that embarrassing moment 22 years ago has kept her vigilant and determined to challenge prejudice.
Back in 1996, a job notice in the Xinmin Evening News aroused Yi’s curiosity.
“The company of such an old tradition chose a fashionable way to recruit, and I wanted to know more,” Yi recalled.
After working as a model in the fashion industry, then a white-collar worker in one of China’s first batches of foreign-funded companies, and later as marketing manager in the real estate industry, Yi joined Fushouyuan Cemetery that year, despite the objections of her parents and friends.
The day after her infamous run in with the teakwood door, Yi returned to the old building and met Ding Yulin, the secretary general of the film association. After a pleasant conversation, Ding introduced Yi to the chairman of the association, Zhang Ruifang, a famous Chinese actress.
In 1998, a sculpture of Ruan debuted in Qingpu District’s Fushouyuan Cemetery. With the help of Zhang, the area around Ruan became a final resting place for many Chinese performing-art celebrities, including Zhang herself.
Ruan’s project became one of Yi’s most important marketing pieces, winning awards in China and abroad.
“I was a newcomer in the trade, so I had no boundaries,” said Yi. After visiting foreign cemeteries in countries such as the United States, Australia, Japan and New Zealand, Yi realized a cemetery “is not only a place for the dead, but also a place to hold the memories of a city, even a country.”
She invited designers and sculptors to create tailor-made plots, landscapes and sculptures for both famous and ordinary people.
Some plots are reserved for those who performed great services for the country, such as military veterans, nationally known medal recipients and highly esteemed artists. There are also special areas for groups such as cancer-club members and body donors.
“We have a duty to take care of the past for the sake of future generations,” Yi said. “I’m always hoping I can make Fushouyuan a platform to showcase the humanistic practices of the city. Here is such a place full of sentiments that I should make it beautiful, because only beauty can help conquer the fear of death.”
After working for 10 years, Yi gradually became a spokeswoman in the interment field. In 2006, her parents visited the cemetery for the first time. During a coffee break, Yi’s father said, “You promised you would bring the interment industry to a grand place of elegance. Now you have done it! We are so proud of you.”
As Yi recalls, she was deeply moved by her parents’ support. “Prejudice can have a strong influence, but it is not impossible to change.”
Qingming Festival’s tradition of honoring ancestors by sweeping their tombs dates back more than 2,500 years. Last year, more than 2 million people visited Shanghai public cemeteries during the holiday.
According to Yi, the practice of burning joss sticks and paper — which leads to air pollution, cardiovascular diseases and other health problems — damaged the interment industry’s image. Since 2018, smoke-free has been promoted as a more ecologically friendly way to honor the dead.
“During the early years I worked here, people left about 30 tons of garbage a day during the Qingming Festival holidays,” Yi said. “You saw nothing but rubbish everywhere. But now, you see flowers, wish cards and yellow ribbons, and there are somber moments when you hear someone quietly playing music. We hope to make some innovations without destroying the old.”
For the past two decades, Yi has presided over the Qingming Festival public ceremony. To prevent large gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic, however, a panoramic view of the cemetery will be live streamed on Saturday. People may leave their wishes online and send the live-streaming link to friends and relatives. They are also encouraged to participate through the WeChat mini-program, Fushouyun, which translates roughly as “cloud sweeping.”
In order to share Fushouyuan’s innovations with industry peers, Yi established a Life Service Academy in 2016, equivalent to an MBA program in the interment industry.
“Through this platform, we want to share more end-of-life care and stories with the public, providing people with more life enlightenment,” said Yi. “As planned, we want to invite more professionals from various walks of life to provide formal support with higher levels of well being. I really think the industry needs regulations and a legal system. We need to believe what we provide is human-centered care. The industry would benefit from more young people with a sense of social responsibility to join us and breathe new life into things. ”
Until now, more than 3,000 trainees from 970 funeral-and-interment-related companies across China have graduated from the academy.
In 2016, Yi went to Manchester, England, to attend her daughter’s graduation ceremony. Yi asked her a very personal question: “What will you do when your dad and I pass away?”
“Maybe I will not buy a tomb for you as is required by tradition,” her daughter said. “I am going to leave some parts of your ashes to make a diamond, and I will wear it when I miss you.”
Her daughter’s moving response kept Yi awake all night.
“Maybe we can have more and bigger steps in funeral innovation,” she said.
For the past three years, Yi has promoted “life diamond” in China. She encourages more innovative designs for the interment industry’s cultural and creative products. She also wants to spearhead a creative industry park solely for life services.
In essence, she thinks the industry’s best days lie ahead.
Q: You've been in the industry for more than 20 years, can you share with us the biggest change, before and after?
A: The biggest change for me is from chasing after materials to mental needs. Before, I was a girl in the fashion industry which is a world of fickleness and vanity. Now, I’m experiencing families’ separation by death everyday, and I am asking myself: "What’s the meaning of life?"
Q: So what’s your answer on understanding the meaning of life? What’s the most important thing of your life?
A: Many have asked me: “You’re 52. How do you challenge yourself with many new goals every day with such great passion?” I think my undertaking endows me with abundant energy. If I can feel that with my daily effort, society will be better.
To settle myself and give back to society are important things for me.
Q: What’s your next goal?
A: I'll share with you a big goal I set for myself after I turned 50. I needed to do some subtractions for my life, that is to say, I needed to select several important things for me to persist in.
I want to make every day a meaningful day, a happy day with good values.
Q: You said society was progressing. Do you remember an incident that made you feel the change?
A: In the early years, I would exchange my business cards with guests or public figures. Usually when an event ended and people left, my cards were the only thing left behind. But now, it's changed. People are always motivated to scan my QR code for WeChat and add me as a friend. Through my Moments, they will see the changing of the funeral business.
Q: The industry gives you more chance to face death. Do you have some suggestions for us?
A: Life and death are two big affairs to every one of us, but facing death, most Chinese have a lack of preparation. When it happens, we are usually in a hasty condition, disorderly.
Actually, we can prepare for it. For example the funeral, which music do you want to play? Who do you want to invite? What color scheme do you want to use? Well, you can design the farewell ceremony yourself.
Because of traditional prejudice, people are not willing to touch the topic. Many elders left without leaving last words, which are likely to arouse family tension and social conflicts.
I really hope we can take a step out to share our views on death and better prepare for it.