What happens when you die in China?

Article by XIANEASE

No one plans on dying while living abroad, but sometimes bad things happen and the situation arises in which someone’s life is cut short a long way from home. In that situation, what happens? Are you buried locally or will your remains be repatriated? How is the process managed in either case? As morbid as the topic may be, and we certainly hope that this topic never need be relevant for anyone, this is something that people should be aware of when living so far from home.

Notifying Next-of-Kin

The first step once someone has died is the notification to the next-of-kin, who will make the remainder of the decisions going forward on what will happen to the remains. Typically, this can be handled by the deceased’s home country consulate here in China, but it also may be handled by the person’s employer or school. In either case, it is important to have up-to-date emergency contact information registered with the appropriate representative.

If the next-of-kin is located in China, then they can be called on to make the necessary arrangements. If they are not located in China, once contacted they can try to obtain a visa to come to China, though a visa cannot be guaranteed by any party government. If the next-of-kin are unable to travel to China, then they may write a letter specifically stating how the remains of their loved one should be treated and what should be done with said remains.

Registering the Death

It is important to obtain a death certificate for the purposes of registering the death in the deceased’s home country, life insurance claims and other relevant benefits will be inaccessible without it. Local authorities will issue a death certificate in Chinese, but in order for it to be used, a certified translation will need to be done, either by a Notary Public or official translation office.

Typically, if the person dies in a hospital, the cause of death will be known and written on the death certificate. If the cause of death was not an infectious disease, then the remains may be embalmed or cremated and sent onwards without issue once all medical bills have been paid. Deaths that occur outside the hospital will likely first be investigated by police to determine the cause. In the event of non-violent deaths, with no evidence of foul play, they may issue a death certificate that lists the cause of death as “sudden death”. If the cause of death is somehow suspicious, the police reserve the right to request an autopsy. Approval for the autopsy must be given by the next of kin or the proxy. Autopsies have been known to take a significant amount of time in China, up to one month, and repatriation of the remains will not occur until the autopsy is completed. Autopsies are not typically conducted unless requested by the police, but one may be requested by the next of kin, bearing in mind the possible delay of repatriation.

What happens to the remains?

Generally, there are two choices when it comes to the processing of the remains; cremation or embalming. Burials were banned in China in 1985 during a national ‘Funeral Reform’ movement in an effort to conserve land, so cremation is the standard process in China, and as such there are several crematoriums that can handle the remains. Once the remains have been processed, they can be picked up by the next-of-kin or their representative and be transported back to the person’s country of origin. Public cemeteries in China do not generally accept the remains of foreigners unless they have made major contributions to Chinese society and have been recognized for such contributions. Private cemeteries may accept the remains, but usually at a premium cost.

If cremation is not desired, then the next-of-kin should explicitly state this, either in person or by official letter. According to Roseates, a Beijing-based funeral home that specializes in the processing and repatriation of the remains of foreigners, each province has a single mortuary that is allowed to process non-Chinese citizens. These sites are usually located in the provincial capital, so depending on where the death happens, arrangements for transportation will need to be made. They also explicitly state on their website that they are not responsible for wrongdoing or negligence on the part of local funeral homes, implying that this has been a problem in the past.

The Costs of Dying in China

Whether choosing to have the remains repatriated or attempt to have them interred in China, the cost is quite high. The embalming process can cost anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000RMB in Beijing, according to a Global times article from 2016. The funeral coordinators and the special transportation required for the remains, as well as the cost of processing the paperwork, can really start to add up. Total cost of repatriation can be upwards of 80,000RMB.Note that these prices are largely from 2016 and have most likely risen in recent years with the continued growth of the Chinese economy and the accompanying inflation.

Choosing to be cremated and interred in China will not be significantly cheaper. The cost of cremation can be as low as 300RMB for locals, the cost for foreigners can be significantly higher, going up to 8000RMB in some cases. Since burial in a public cemetery is not typically possible, it is required to purchase a private funeral plot for the remains, which can run upwards of 200,000RMB. This means that in some cases, it is more expensive to be laid to rest in China than to be repatriated. It is also illegal to spread ashes without expressed permission in most places, with a fine being imposed for doing so.

Most embassy websites specifically state that they will not bear any financial responsibility for the repatriation or burial of their citizens in foreign lands, meaning that the costs will be borne by the next-of-kin or the estate of the deceased. With such high costs, it may be necessary to plan ahead for such expenses to avoid delay. Access to the belongings and funds of the deceased may be difficult without prior arrangement, so creating a document with key information may be advisable.

No one plans on dying far from home, but knowing what to do in the event that the can greatly reduce the stress and anxiety in what are already terrible circumstances. If there are any further questions about this topic, feel free to contact us through our official account or by email at info@xianease.com.