A Dying Business? Funeral Goods Stores Feel the Pinch

by micheljwpn

The main street in Mibeizhuang Village stretches for about 1 kilometer and is lined with stores trading in death. Welcome to the so-called “Wall Street of the underworld,” where businesses stock approximately 10,000 different types of goods, such as paper flowers, effigies, and elegiac couplets, for traditional Chinese funerals and memorial ceremonies.

The village, part of Baoding City in the northern Hebei province, accounts for 90% of China’s funeral supplies market, recording an annual output of about 1 billion yuan ($137.94 million). Some even joke that the sheer amount of “spirit money” sold here, to be burned for use by deceased loved ones, likely means it props up the economy in the afterlife.

Every year, in the run-up to China’s annual Tomb Sweeping Festival, which usually falls at the beginning of April, shoppers flock to Mibeizhuang to look for gifts with which to honor their ancestors. That was until this year, when the main street was eerily quiet; only a smattering of streetside stalls served the few customers present, leaving most vendors to spend their days idly scrolling on their phones.

“Business is getting worse every year,” sighs Wang Guoqiang, who trades in memorial supplies. From early morning until 11:30 a.m. he had sold only one item — a paper mahjong set costing 16 yuan.

The downturn in this once-lucrative market stems from two major factors: policy and progress. In recent years, local authorities across the country, including in Baoding, have introduced “civilized memorial” regulations targeting the manufacture or sale of “feudal and superstitious” goods such as spirit money and other paper offerings. In addition, the emergence of new technologies is providing people with cheaper and more sustainable options for funeral and memorial ceremonies.

Store owner Wu Tian says vendors are having to use their imagination to keep pace with the times and to skirt the new rules. “To be honest, there’s a bit of magical thinking at play in our industry now,” he says.

Flowering industry

Mibeizhuang’s memorial supply industry began with paper flowers, which it first began producing as early as the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). “Back then, paper flowers were often used by women as hair accessories or to decorate homes, sometimes for weddings,” recalls one elderly resident. However, in 1976, upon the death of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong, paper flowers became part of the country’s funeral traditions. After that, the village began shipping its products nationwide.

As these paper flowers flourished, gaining widespread popularity, a special wholesale market was established in the town that administers Mibeizhuang in 1983. However, the local memorial supply industry we see today didn’t begin to take shape for another 20 years. Elderly residents credit this transformation to Yang Wenyuan, who at the time was Party secretary of Xiong County, where the village is located. He oversaw development of the main street, attracted suppliers and buyers, and helped organize the local workforce, dividing labor between production and sales.

Today, the majority of Mibeizhuang’s 3,000 residents are engaged in the memorial supply industry. At its peak, the village’s gross annual income reached 153 million yuan. Trucks loaded with paper effigies, paper donkeys, and burial clothes pass through often, and outside almost every home are sheets of colored paper hanging on string wires, left out to dry in the sun before residents use them to make flowers.

The road leading to the village is lined with “spirit banners,” used to guide spirits to the afterlife; plastic male and female ceremonial effigies in traditional dress, destined to become servants or company for the deceased; paper cows and horses for farming; and cranes, which symbolize longevity. Shop signs are emblazoned with names like Factory Wholesale Body Bags, Redwood Coffin Showroom, and High-End Crystal Cremation Urns.

Li Wei, who runs a store in the middle of “Wall Street of the underworld,” says Mibeizhuang’s funeral and memorial supplies are effectively a national brand, even attracting businesses and individuals to relocate there to pursue the market. Buoyed by its success, neighboring villages have also begun developing related product specialties, such as paper ingots, wreaths, and Taoist ceremonial offerings. As a result, large tracts of farmland here lie fallow — visitors are more likely to encounter a field of semi-finished paper flowers than a field of crops.

Forty-something Li and his wife used to sell donkey meat burgers in downtown Baoding, but they decided to return to their native village in 2014, renting a 60-square-meter space to open a one-stop supermarket offering “almost anything one might need in the afterlife.” The shelves are stocked with all kinds of paper products: beverages, vegetables, cell phones, televisions, cooking gas cylinders, electric-powered farm tricycles, and passports. The store also receives orders for custom-made products, such as full-size replica camouflaged tanks; luxury goods including Lamborghinis, Porsches, Mercedes, and Harley-Davidson motorcycles; and even a scaled-down three-story villa with a butler, maids, and a courtyard.

Paper offerings are a key element of traditional Chinese memorial customs. People believe that the dead will bless their living relatives and safeguard their happiness, so they send as much worldly wealth to the afterlife as possible, to help their deceased ancestors “live” more comfortably. The belief that the dead are entitled to the utmost respect also means buyers rarely haggle over prices, allowing for huge profit margins on some products, especially urns, according to Li.

“Burning paper offerings brings us peace of mind. If we don’t burn offerings, we feel like something is missing,” says one resident, adding that he doesn’t like using fresh flowers because they are too expensive, especially around the Tomb Sweeping Festival, when florists raise their prices. “A single bouquet costs hundreds of yuan — how many paper ingots could you buy with that much money?”

Li says business in the village traditionally picks up before the Tomb Sweeping Festival and Ghost Festival (the 15th night of the seventh lunar month), and during winter, which is “maybe when people are more likely to die.” Yet, like his fellow store owners, he fears that the market faces a bumpy road ahead.

Burning issue

In late March, local vendors received a text notification about the Baoding Civilized Memorial Initiative on their cell phones. Like similar policies rolled out by cities in Jiangsu, Shandong, Guizhou, Hunan, Shaanxi, and other provinces, the initiative aimed to prohibit the production and selling of “feudal and superstitious” memorial supplies. The penalties for violating these new regulations include steep fines and the confiscation of goods.

The impact on business is evident. Wu, whose store is on the verge of bankruptcy, says that in the past two years, enforcement of civilized memorial policies in Xiong County has become more strict, “but there are too many traders, so it’s difficult to tackle everyone.” Plus, he adds, people are quick to find ways to bend the rules.

For example, in 2019, the government updated its regulations on using the design of the renminbi, the Chinese currency, to make ceremonial paper offerings. Inspections were ramped up, and sales of spirit money plummeted. To get around this, however, manufacturers switched to using foreign currencies. “Euros, dollars, pounds, you name it — and the exchange rates are quite high,” says Wu. (To avoid their deceased relatives having to exchange money in the afterlife, some people have simply taken to burning paper ATMs.)

Other factors contributing to the troubles facing Mibeizhuang traders are the emergence of e-commerce channels and the growing interest in more sustainable funeral and memorial products.

Zhao Wenli and her husband, who are both in their 30s, closed their brick-and-mortar clothes store to run an online sales channel for funeral-related goods from their home in Baxi village, just 7 kilometers north of Mibeizhuang. “We had to do it. Running an offline business is becoming increasingly difficult,” Zhao says. “With the impact of the reform policies, brick-and-mortar businesses won’t go far, but online businesses can survive.”

Her shop sells standard products made by other companies. However, Zhao says her main problem is finding people who are willing to model burial clothes, as being associated with death can be seen as highly unlucky in Chinese culture. She usually has to model the outfits herself.

Bringing death into the digital age, Li has also tried to find more modern and “civilized” products to sell in his store. One example is reusable electronic wreaths, which comprise a metal frame with artificial flowers and an LED screen. These are priced at between 400 and 800 yuan, but can be rented at a cost of 25 yuan a day.

“I can customize the e-wreath using a mobile app, inputting the words the customer wants displayed on the LED screen,” he explains. Most funerals in China require at least 20 wreaths. In the evening, they can be lit up with flashing lights for a striking visual effect. Li now has 30 e-wreaths available for rent, and he plans to get more.

“The future of funerals and memorials is definitely technology,” he says.

Reported by Li He.

(Due to privacy concerns, all names are pseudonyms except for Yang Wenyuan.)

A version of this article originally appeared in Fir Record. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

Translator: Carrie Davies; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

(Header image:  Plastic ceremonial effigies in traditional dress on display in Mibeizhuang Village, Hebei province, March 2024. Li He/Fir Record)

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