Days after the central Chinese city of Wuhan was put on lockdown, Song Shan, a recovering stroke victim in his late 80s, was told he had to vacate his hospital bed to make room for coronavirus patients.
“Wuhan’s public transport had all stopped, there were no cars to carry him,” his granddaughter Zhou Xiaoxue told the FT. She pushed her grandfather on a stretcher trolley through empty streets slick with rain in search of a hospital bed. But the virus had stretched the city’s healthcare beyond capacity and there was none to be found. Eventually, she took her grandfather home. He died five days later.
“He worked hard his whole life doing all he could for the nation, but when he died there was no place for him,” she told the FT at the time. The lack of a proper send-off for a Chinese Communist party member made her deeply unhappy — his ashes remained at the funeral home and she knew she would have to wait to organise the burial.
She was finally able to bury her grandfather two weeks ago after Wuhan cautiously started to lift curbs on people’s movements.
The loosening of restrictions has been a relief for many in the city, but it has also stirred up residual anger over initial delays and cover-ups that some feel led to unnecessary infections and deaths.
Last weekend was Qing Ming, China’s annual tomb sweeping festival, when families show filial piety to ancestors by cleaning headstones, laying flowers and setting fire to paper money to send the deceased good fortune in the afterlife.
However, as elsewhere in the world, the outbreak has upended rituals for the dead in Wuhan. The city government last week banned vigils and group visits to graveyards, asking cemeteries to instead provide free online “tomb sweeping” allowing families visit a digital “grave” to pay respects and make virtual offerings.
The restrictions coincided with new doubts over official Chinese tallies of Covid-19 victims that arose on March 26 after pictures circulated on social media of crowds forming outside the designated Wuhan funeral home for coronavirus victims. The relatives were queueing to collect their loved ones’ remains prompting some social media users to question why there were so many people.
On the same day Caixin, an independent Chinese publication, quoted a truck driver saying he had delivered 5,000 urns to the funeral home that week, a report that led to expressions of further distrust of the official death toll on Chinese social media. Authorities say 2,571 have died as a result of the outbreak in Wuhan as of Monday.
The funeral home, which was assigned confirmed Covid-19 victims as well as any death ruled as potentially from coronavirus, declined to comment. It is unclear how regularly urns are delivered to the home or what proportion of the Wuhan deaths from coronavirus it has handled.
Nurses in Wuhan have told the FT that they suspect the authorities are under-reporting cases. In the early days of the outbreak, a lack of test kits meant that some cases may have gone undetected. China began to report a daily count of symptomatic cases only last week, but it has not revealed a retrospective tally.
In Wuhan, even funeral homes that were not dealing with victims of Covid-19 have been feeling the strain of the lockdown. Now that it has eased, relatives are being asked to pick up the remains of their loved ones as soon as possible. Liu Yaocheng, a 36-year-old Wuhan resident, said the municipal disease control authorities had contacted her. “Due to the large volume of urns they had to look after, they could no longer keep my aunt’s until the end of April,” she said.
Ms Liu added authorities appeared to be struggling. “[Funeral parlours] must have taken in a huge volume of ashes and urns for sorting, labelling and filing,” she said. “Amid all this chaos, how can I be sure that what I’m going to pick up are really my aunt’s ashes?”
Wuhan residents report other hardships related to their departed loved ones.
Salia Yang, who lost both her mother and grandfather to the virus, has been unable to collect their belongings, including an iPad and an identity card, from the hospital where they died. The items are deemed to be “virus-contaminated” and will be discarded, medical staff told her, despite Ms Yang telling them that she needs the belongings in order to make insurance claims.
“It’s bad enough that people have lost their loved ones. Why do they have to make it so hard to take care of the affairs afterwards?” Ms Yang said.
“The saddest thing is of course the death,” Wuhan writer Fang Fang told Caixin in an interview this week. In 60 diary entries Ms Fang has given a voice to the trauma of the city. “The dead have gone, but their loved ones remain,” she told publication after finishing her final entry.
Despite her grandfather’s death, Ms Zhou is optimistic about the city’s ability to move on. She has been impressed with how local community officials organised and paid for the funeral.
“I felt resentful, but later it has gradually changed to understanding and sorrow,” she said. “The spiritual scars will vary from person to person, but the generation who lived through this catastrophe will never forget.”
Additional reporting by Qianer Liu in Shenzhen and Emma Zhou in Beijing