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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 May 2007, 00:40 GMT 01:40 UK
China's graveyard bubble bursts

By James Reynolds
BBC News, Beijing

At 0800 on a Saturday morning, the Ten Thousand Buddha Cemetery in western Beijing is already conducting its first funeral.

Mourners
The bereaved pay a lot of money for empty plots

Four guards carry a wooden box with the ashes of their latest customer.

Another guard walks behind them, carrying a small stereo playing funeral music.

Behind the guards walk the mourners. They have come to bury the ashes of their 78-year-old father Li Qiuchang.

This family is lucky - they can afford the 1,500 it costs for a basic grave at this cemetery.

It does not particularly matter that their father has already been dead for three years. His children have finally got him a good grave. In this country, that is important.

Leased plots

After a few minutes' slow walk, the procession reaches a black gravestone at the end of a row on the hillside. A funeral official in a black suit addresses the dead man.

I've invested all my money in it and lost, so I can't enjoy the rest of my life
Liu Chen

"Please allow me to close the door of your new home," he says to the ashes. "And thank you for your co-operation."

The official bows to the grave. And the family stands quietly.

The official then bends down, and places the box containing Li Qiuchang's ashes inside the grave. He seals the grave with cement - for exactly 40 years.

After that, the lease runs out. In this country, a cemetery is a business. And it is booming. This is where a Chinese family shows off its wealth - particularly in the richer part of the graveyard.

One of the graves is decorated with a laptop computer made out of stone. A large statue of a tank stands in front of one headstone.

Get rich quick

Inch for inch in China, it often costs more to be buried in a piece of land, than it does to actually live on it.

So, inevitably, China has its own get-rich-quick-with-a-grave scheme.

Wang Peng
Wang Peng is among those who have lost their life savings

The idea is this - you buy up loads of empty plots, their value increases, and then you sell them off at a profit.

Companies have released promotional videos promising investors a quick return on their money.

One video shows a beautiful cemetery, lined with temples. All you have to do - the company promises - is buy some empty graves, wait a while, sell them off. And make a safe and easy profit.

A solid-looking deputy mayor sitting behind an equally solid looking desk is shown in one video - reassuring ordinary people that buying up stacks of graves is a good idea.

But for many investors it has all gone wrong.

Badly cheated

At his apartment in Beijing, Wang Peng searches for the certificates he has locked in a cupboard - he does not want his four-year-old granddaughter to find them and scribble on them.

The certificates show that he bought 24 empty plots in a cemetery called Spiritual Spring.

These pieces of paper are all that Mr Wang has to show for his family's entire life savings - more than 10,000.

But the company has never delivered. And the certificates are worthless.

"I will never forgive them," he says, "because they cheated me badly".

"They made me lose all my life-savings. I am having such a difficult time right now. Why should I forgive them?

"They should return our money. You can't treat us ordinary people this way."

Six-year campaign

We sit at his kitchen table, and he shows me the brochure the company gave him.

Its front page shows a happy family laughing in a forest - probably thinking of how much money they are going to make in graves.

One of Mr Wang's neighbours, Liu Chen, comes in to see us. She, too, has lost all her savings.

"I've invested all my money in it and lost, so I can't enjoy the rest of my life," she says.

"We're chasing the local government to try to return our money. We've been trying for six years. And we still can't get our money back."

No body, no grave

So, at all cemeteries including Ten Thousand Buddha, China's now introducing new rules - no more grave speculation.

From now on, you only get a grave if you have already got a body to put in it. No body - no grave.

Behind the main temple, a small crowd of mourners shovels fake paper banknotes into a furnace.

The money is for their dead relative to spend in the afterlife. China hopes these people will now be safe from get-rich-grave-schemes.

No-one wants to burn money in both worlds.






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