Almost Heaven: About Chinese Death Care Industry and Morticians
“Almost Heaven” (咫尺天堂, Zhǐchǐ tiāntáng) is a documentary directed by Carol Salter. The documentary focuses on the actual person, a 17-year-old Ying Ling (莹玲) and her true story as an apprentice in a funeral house in Changsha (长沙), China. “Almost Heaven” follows Ying Ling, a migrant worker who left her hometown in Sichuan (四川) to Changsha seeking for job opportunities, then occasionally entered the funeral industry as an apprentice.
This Chinese teenage girl, who accepts this job in mortuary that most Chinese people wouldn’t consider or talk about due to all the taboos about death. According to the director Salter, Ying Ling attracts her so much due to her pureness, cheerfulness and hard-working attitude toward her job. Although being a mortician may not be Ying Ling’s first choice of job, she still grabs the chance and learns wholeheartedly. Meanwhile, we can see Ying Ling respects the dead and try her best to do her job.
Through Ying Ling, the documentary shows us the very closed world of the industry of death. In this documentary, we can see Ying Ling’s daily job in the mortuary, which leads us to take a glimpse into Chinese funeral services. In addition, Salter is impressed by Ying Ling’s positivity to conquer her fear towards dead bodies, her humor and cheerfulness even if she encountered death every day.
“Almost Heaven” not only gives us a closer look into Chinese industry and taboos about death but also makes us hold a respectful heart to it. This documentary is released in UK cinema on September 14th, 2017 and is nominated for “best documentary” at Berlin Film Festival 2017.
Death Care Industry (殡仪业, Bìn yí yè) Culture in China
The Most Important Culture about Chinese Funeral
Why do I say “culture” about the funeral industry? In a nutshell, the most important value and culture in death care industry in Chinese countries is “sincere care and comfort for the deceased and their family and relatives.”
Chinese culture is deeply based on Confucianism and the filial piety. The annual Chinese Tomb Sweeping Day, for example, which Chinese people hold full respect and seriousness to their deceased ancestors or family members. Likewise, Chinese people are taught to be respectful towards the deceased. Never say something impolite or act not seriously on the funeral. Death can be a sensitive subject to many Chinese people, and thus they usually treat these subjects carefully.
In order to help the deceased one’s bid farewell to this world with dignity, as well as comfort their family and loved ones with compassion, death care industry plays a very important role. Consequently, the process, preparations, and all the rules for the funeral can be complex and people need to be careful about the rules and rites.
Job description of Chinese Funeral Service (DeathCare) Industry
The main and important jobs for the mortuary service industry include:
- Clean, preserve and do cosmetic service to make the dead bodies sanitary and complete. Cosmetic services include the dressing, hair of the deceased, etc.
- Comfort the family members or loved ones of the deceased and sincerely care about their feelings.
- Help with casketing the body.
- Prepare for and hold a decent and serious funeral to show respect and let the deceased ones go with dignity.
- Help with cremation and retrieve cremated remains.
Chinese people value most about the completeness of the dead body. If their loved ones passed away, they hope their bodies can be complete and pretty. Therefore, the first job is the preservation of the body, including freezing the body, cleaning, and embalming. The mortician (礼仪师, Lǐyí shī) would in charge of cosmetic services to the body like make-up and dress the body in new clothes. If the corpse is not complete because of accidents, the mortician would also figure out the various solutions, for example, replace the missing part with something else, or even 3D printing techniques nowadays.
Another important job for the morticians is to make the family or relatives comforting and assuring about their loved one’s death. By cleaning and embellishing the body with respect and care, the family would be comforting as well. Of course, not only the funeral industry, in China, the government provides basic funeral services such as transport the body, preserve, cremation and deposit bone ash. Extension services like the cosmetic and dressing are offered by death care industry.
Other Famous Films/ TV series about Death Care Industry
Although death is a serious and sensitive issue, there are many famous Chinese and Japanese films feature in death care industry filming with a rather humorous style. These films/TV series not only combine the originally serious culture with humor, but more importantly give us a closer look into this industry with different perspectives. Apart from “Almost Heaven”, which gives us a true story of a mortician, the following are other films about funeral service industry combining made-up plots and humor.
- Seven Days in Heaven (2010) (父后七日, Fù hòu qī rì)
Genre: Black comedy, fiction, drama
Language: Mandarin, Taiwanese
Seven Days in Heaven is originally a prose of Taiwanese writer Essay Liu (刘梓洁, Liúzǐjié). The story is about a woman who worked in big city hastening to her hometown village within seven days of her father’s death. During her return, she is reminded of the villagers’ simplicity and superstition about funeral rituals and the all the rules they are taught to follow. The adaptation film features the local funeral culture in Taiwan as well as Taoism rites in a humorous way. After all the mess and hustle of the funeral, she was overwhelmed with the feelings that how much she missed her father.
(Watch Seven Days in Heaven trailer with English/Chinese subtitle)
- Departures (2008) (送行者：礼仪师的乐章, Sòngxíng zhě: Lǐyí shī de yuèzhāng)
Departures (Japanese: おくりびと or Okuribito, “one who sends off”) talks about an unemployed cellist takes a job as a traditional Japanese ritual mortician, preparing the dead for funerals. At first, he tries his best not to let anyone know about his new job, including his wife, but eventually realize the beauty and dignity of his job.
(Watch Departures trailer with English/Chinese subtitle)
- Make Up (2011) (命运化妆师, Mìngyùn huàzhuāng shī)
Genre: Drama, fiction, suspense
If you love suspense film or murder, but meanwhile combining different culture, then you can’t miss this film. Make Up is a Taiwanese film by the director Lien Yi-Chi, the Chinese name of the film “命运化妆师” literally means “The makeup artist for destiny”. The main plot is talking about a mortician Min-hsiu (敏秀), or specifically, a makeup artist for the deceased who always does her job calmly and professionally. She lives a quiet life until one day she receives a case to make up for her high-school teacher and also her ex-lover Chen Ting (陈庭), who believed have committed suicide.
The heartbroken husband of Chen Ting, psychiatrist Nie, who is also his wife’s former psychiatrist, comes to Min-hsiu in hope of discovering more about Chen’s past. However, detective Kuo thinks that the death of Chen Ting is not suicidal and asks Min-hsiu to help him investigate.
The film not only depicts the love and hatred between the characters but also convey the ideas of the toughness in the funeral service industry. Most importantly, it reveals people shouldn’t ignore the profession of morticians.
(Watch Make Up trailer with English/Chinese subtitle)
- Long Day’s Journey into Light (2015)(出境事务所, Chūjìng shìwù suǒ)
Genre: Drama, fiction, suspense
Language: Mandarin, Hakka
Long Day’s Journey into Light is a Taiwanese TV series surrounding the funeral home and a group of morticians. The series features humorous style but meanwhile serious and respectful when they are dealing with death. This TV series discusses the subject about death that most people don’t want to talk about, but in the way that is moderately combining humor, sensitive topic, and culture.
The TV series has received really good reputation and popularity and even won the 2015 Golden Bell Awards for “Best Writing for a Television Series.”
(Watch Long Day’s Journey into Light trailer with English/Chinese subtitle)
Working at a mortuary may seem tough and timidly to most Chinese people, because of cultural taboos and sensitivity. However, we shouldn’t ignore the importance and hard work of death care industry and give more respect to them. The films listed above not only shows the insight but also reveals the value of Chinese funeral services industry. Thanks to those who contribute to this industry, Chinese funeral rites and traditions can maintain.
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