New-trend undertakers take funerals out of dark corners to celebrate life

Lu Feiran
The rituals of death can be trying for the bereaved. Funeral homes run by young people are out to change perceptions and help survivors find meaning in loss.
Lu Feiran

Making arrangements at a funeral parlor for a loved one lost can be an upsetting experience. One undertaker staffed by young people is trying to alleviate the agony by creating an environment where the bereaved can pour out their hearts about perceptions of life and death.

It's called Baiduren, or "Ferrymen" – a reference perhaps to Charon in Greek mythology, the ferryman who took souls across the river that separated the living and the dead.

New-trend undertakers take funerals out of dark corners to celebrate life
Ti Gong

The salon seeks to dispel public stereotypes of funeral homes to enable people to cope with death more easily.

Inside Baiduren, which looks by outward appearances like a café, relatives of the dead can tell staff stories that they may not be able to share with friends and family for any number of reasons. A team of staff 40 years and younger provides the ears.

"Our job initially was funeral planning and handling related affairs like portrait design for customers," said Shi Xiaolin, leader of what Badiruen calls the "life experiencing project."

"After a few years in business, we felt that we wanted to make a breakthrough in the industry because there are still so many stereotypes about and biases against funeral homes," he explained.

That was obvious from the start. Shi and his team had difficulty finding a landlord willing to rent to a funeral parlor. In the end, the site they found was in Hongkou District, a mere 10-minute walk from Baoxing Funeral Parlor, one of the largest undertakers in the city. The irony of the traditional and the unorthodox in the industry, almost side by side, was not lost on Baiduren.

The Baiduren salon is decorated in a modern style, with soft lighting that contrasts with traditional funeral homes that are dim, full of funeral regalia and heavily scented by joss sticks.

"Apart from those who want to pour their hearts out, we also receive families who want to discuss funeral affairs in a more relaxed, soothing environment," Shi told Shanghai Daily.

New-trend undertakers take funerals out of dark corners to celebrate life
Ti Gong

The Baiduren salon resembles a common café, but many people come here to pour out their hearts about their perceptions of life and death.

The salon has been more popular than the team expected since its soft opening in late February.

In the past month, the team has listened to a lot of stories – from survivors who can't seem to accept the loss of a loved one, from survivors still in shock over a death that occurred by accident, from survivors who have harbored suicidal thoughts. In turn, staff often relate their own stories of sorrow and coping.

On one wall of the salon, messages from customers are pinned. Reading through them, one senses that no matter how sad or desolate people may feel when they walk in the door, voicing emotions eases the pain by the time they leave.

"We are now receiving customers who show up without appointment," said Shi. "One Saturday, a man came and talked to us for hours, choked up with tears. Instances like this make us feel we're needed."

New-trend undertakers take funerals out of dark corners to celebrate life
Lu Feiran / SHINE

Customers leave messages on a wall, expressing their gratitude toward the salon.

The salon, from the standpoint of both staff and customers, points to a change in how people – especially the young – view death and funerals. Its customers shun a common belief that the rituals of death are a taboo to be shrouded in darkness. And those searching for jobs no longer regard undertakers as a profession to be avoided at all costs.

Indeed, many on the team at Baiduren come from different career tracks, often never thinking they would end up in the funeral business when in college.

Shen Jiaying, who is responsible for new media management on the team, majored in animation in university. She decided to join Baiduren after an awful experience her family endured when planning a funeral.

"My mother at first didn't understand my choice of new career and gave me the silent treatment for nearly half a year," Shen said. "But after she entrusted my grandmother's funeral to our team, she finally understood and gave me her full support."

The new approach seeks to make funerals a celebration of life. It's a trend of particular interest this week as the Qingming Festival nears on April 4. Qingming is the traditional time when Chinese revere their ancestors by cleaning tomb, burning paper money and placing offerings.

Baiduren is not the only example of young people determined to make a difference in the funeral business.

In neighboring Zhejiang Province, Zhang Fengyan and her husband are planning to take over her mother-in-law's funeral business when she retires. They are already trying to make a new impact on it, even as Zhang currently works as a sales representative for a foreign trading company,

"We want to promote the business in a new light," Zhang told Shanghai Daily. "We would like to remove the dread so many people have toward funeral services."

The couple is promoting their vision through short videos on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. The main character appearing in the videos is Zhang's mother-in-law, a certified undertaker, but instead of talking in somber tones about the business, she displays her skill in origami and folk lore promotion. The channel gained more than 4,000 followers within half a year.

"In the beginning there were some nasty comments like 'You're back luck!' and 'Get out of my dash!'" Zhang said. "But tolerance replaced vitriol, and now we see only positive comments."

Zhang said she is quite impressed by another video uploader on Bilibili, who is also a staff member of a funeral parlor in Jiangsu Province. Under the screen name "Tang Mu Tan Ze," her channel has gained more than 1 million followers. The staffer, a woman in her early 20s, is responsible for the makeup and clothing of the deceased.

On her channel, she often shares her work details in a light, kind-hearted manner, giving viewers insight into how a funeral parlor operates and attracting the interest of those interested in joining the business.

"Some people said, 'I think this is a very lofty job, and I want to do it in the future,'" she said in a video. "While I'm glad that people understand our work, I have to say this is quite a difficult job and not something one should do on impulse. You have to be mentally and physically prepared."

The Baiduren team thinks along the same lines.

"Whenever we have job applicants come in for interview, we warn them again and again that this work requires being on call 24/7 and that it requires skills, including the skill of communicating with people," said Shen. "Once we had a newbie that lasted for just one day and quit."

The team is enthusiastic about future plans.

"We are planning to build an enclosed area in the salon for those who need a private space just for themselves to be alone," said Shi. "People can go there when they want to meditate, think about life without a loved one, or find a new direction."

New-trend undertakers take funerals out of dark corners to celebrate life
Ti Gong

The room at back of the salon will be turned into a meditation space.

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