Body Repatriation

What happens when a foreigner dies here in China? It’s certainly something that we never really talk about, however it’s also interesting to know.

Recently, a friend asked me a question that no other friends of mine—neither foreign or local—had asked me before: “If a foreigner dies in China, what do they do with the body?” Most expats don’t like to picture themselves ending up dead in a foreign land like China, yet perhaps the question creeps into mind once in a while and nobody seems too keen to talk about it. Why bother to mention such an ominous matter?

Ominous or not, three major causes—heart attacks, alcohol poisoning and traffic accidents—claim nearly 2,000 lives of foreigners each year. According to the official website of China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, that number was just 300 in the early 1990s.

It’s natural that the deceased will be transported back to where they are originally from as most people want to be buried in the place where they were born, or which they call home. Usually, family members are left with the task of handling the paperwork and formalities. The local funeral parlor, called Bìnyíguǎn (殡仪馆) in Chinese, should be informed immediately when death occurs in order to handle the embalming and storage of the body, as well as local Public Security Bureau (PSB) to issue the death certificate.

Ominous or not, three major causes—heart attacks, alcohol poisoning and traffic accidents—claims nearly 2,000 lives of foreigners each year.

In China, the only authorized party to handle international body repatriation is the state-controlled China Funeral Association, which has a network of 36 funeral parlors in 26 provincial administrative regions. Since the Dongguan Binyiguan has no right to ship out the mortal remains, once they receive a foreigner they will inform Guangzhou Funeral Service—the certified service in Guangdong which guides the family to obtain all the necessary paperwork including quarantine certificate and to arrange flights.

According to Mr. Zhang who works in the Guangzhou Funeral Service, the total cost for each body is around 95,000 RMB if the corpse departures from Guangzhou airport, and 10,000 RMB less leaving from Hong Kong. Compared to 2012, the price has increased by nearly triple. And this excludes the cost of preservation and storage services provided by Dongguan Binyiguan, which is fortunately not very expensive, at roughly 300 RMB for embalming and 70 RMB/day for the space.

The related embassy or consulate should be contacted as soon as possible too, especially when the passed foreigner’s family is unable to reach them. In this case, they will use their power to contact the family back home. Bear in mind that they only take responsibility for the deceased if the next of kin can’t be identified or located, or don’t want to assume responsibility. They will, however, give helpful suggestions or introduce trustworthy international human remains repatriation companies to solve your problems. However, they will not and cannot take care of obtaining all the documents needed for you. In fact, being occupied by all sorts of errands might as well alleviate the unbearable sorrow for those alive, that’s why the Chinese always serve a magnificent banquet at their funerals.

What about those whose connections to their home countries have grown tenuous? Or those who’ve married into Chinese families or have nobody waiting for them back home? Can they lay forever in their last home? The answer is a firm no. Burial is prohibited here in China for foreigners. In 2008, the Ministry of Civil Affairs released a regulation that largely banned foreigners being buried in China, except for those who have distinguished themselves with their “special contributions.” Therefore, there are two options for ordinary people: one is to directly transport the body back to the home country, and the other is to transport the ashes back after cremation, which saves a huge amount of money and time. Burial is simply not an option in China, even for Chinese citizens, due to less and less land being available.

What if the family isn’t fond of traveling a long distance to figure out the hassle? Yes, you will have someone to act on your behalf in China by simply paying more money. Transporting corpses for foreign nationals has become easier over the past 10 years or so, as China has seen the emergence of several private companies that specialize in coordinating human remains repatriation from/to China, cooperating with major authorized funeral parlors throughout the country. With 15 years of experience, Roseates is one of them, providing smooth services applying to both inbound and outbound transportation.