Asia Life

Sleep, Forever, Among Chinese Celebrities and Cemetery Swag

After an enormously successful IPO, China’s biggest funeral service provider booms.

Sleep, Forever, Among Chinese Celebrities and Cemetery Swag
Credit: Flickr via Eddie Awad

Death in an aging China – a country with nearly 200 million people over the age of 60 – is creating a lucrative funeral service and cemetery industry, and no one has been able to capitalize on the needs of the deceased quite like Fu Shou Yuan.

The Shanghai-based company is mainland China’s largest funeral operator and owner of six cemeteries. In operation for 20 years, Fu Shou Yuan shocked investors when its $215 million December IPO was oversubscribed by nearly 700 percent. It closed at HK$4.8 last Friday – 40 percent higher than it started. Even U.S. investment firm The Carlyle Group bought shares.

“With a growing number of deaths each year as a result of an ageing population, the number of cremations is also on a steady rise, which is a major driver for the growth of the [Chinese] death care services industry,” Fu Shou Yuan announced ahead of the offering. “China has the largest number of deaths in the world and thus has the largest potential consumer base for death care services.”

Fu Shou Yuan, valued at about $1.4 billion, expects death services in China to become a $16.5 billion industry by 2017. The company said that proceeds from the stock sell-off would be used to purchase land that is suitable for clients’ eternal slumber.

Despite its huge success, the Chinese government isn’t too thrilled about Fu Shou Yuan taking up valuable real estate in heavily congested cities. Amid criticism from both state media and members of the public, who assert that some burial service providers charge exorbitant fees and disregard industry standards, the communist government has recommended cremation – even burial at sea – as more sustainable alternatives.

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“Despite the government’s disapproval, many Chinese still prefer traditional burial,” wrote Bloomberg. “For them, Fu Shou Yuan offers a wide selection that includes artistic tombs designed, as the company touts on its website, ‘totally according to the customers’ interest and requirements.’ … E-commerce is booming in China, so naturally Fu Shou Yuan has an online shopping option, with customers able to choose from more than 60 different tombstones.”

CNN describes one of Fu Shou Yuan’s cemeteries in Shanghai as having a multi-floor mausoleum with themed rooms – accessed by key card, like a hotel. Outside, headstones are polished and the landscaping is impeccable. An on-site restaurant offers banquet services for the bereaved, and in-house sculptors design one-off busts that treat loved ones like Greek or Roman philosophers. The hilltop resting place of a former pop star plays her most famous songs through a speaker – left on repeat for eternity (or at least until the power goes out).

“We have 700 celebrities here – military martyrs, politicians, opera stars, and actors,” Jason Wu, the cemetery’s manager, told CNN. “When you buy a plot, it is just the first step. People even come here to get wedding pictures taken.”

Those hoping to be enshrined at one of Fu Shou Yuan’s high-class burial facilities must have banks accounts as large as those of the celebrities already resting there. A plot in Shanghai reportedly sells for more than $30,000 – and that is the basic cost of land, without burial fees, headstones, or any other cemetery swag.

On the other hand, the Chinese government has promised to pay Shanghai residents’ families approximately $330 to scatter their ashes over Hangzhou Bay. With more than 9 million deaths a year, China is expected to run out of space to bury them in as little as six years.