The New Rules For Coronavirus Mourners In Wuhan Have Angered Many Residents : Goats and Soda Zhang Hai's father died of the coronavirus on Feb. 1 and was cremated. Ashes can now be picked up, but the government requires a chaperone for visits to the crematorium as well as for burials.

The New Rules For Mourners In Wuhan Have Angered Many Residents

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How does one grieve during a pandemic? In the Chinese city of Wuhan, it's done under constant government supervision. NPR's Emily Feng is in Wuhan, where she spoke to families struggling to mourn loved ones who've died of COVID-19.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Zhang Hai is wracked with guilt. In mid-January, the Wuhan native took his 76-year-old father, Zhang Lifa, from southern China, where he works, to Wuhan, seeking medical treatment for a bone fracture. Unbeknownst to him, health authorities there were already monitoring an outbreak involving dozens of cases of a SARS-like pneumonia.

ZHANG HAI: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: If the Wuhan government had disclosed more about the virus, Zhang says, he would've never driven his father back. Instead, the elder Zhang contracted COVID-19 in Wuhan's Central Theater Command Hospital, a special military hospital. He died February 1 with his son by his side.

ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Zhang managed to dress his father with new clothes head to toe, per Chinese tradition. He says he wanted to restore his father's dignity before he left this world, like a human being deserves. Other traditions, like burning paper money together, had to be abandoned.

Because of the coronavirus epidemic, Wuhan crematoriums didn't even begin releasing the remains of loved ones who died until late March. Anyone who died during the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, like Zhang's father, was cremated for free at government expense, regardless of whether they died of the virus. Grave plots are also subsidized. Some are now 30% off. But there's a catch.

ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Like everyone in Wuhan, Zhang had to arrange a time to pick up his father's ashes this month while accompanied by neighborhood officials or workplace supervisors. These officials are also required to accompany the family member to the burial plot. Zhang refused to do so.

ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: He told the officials he wanted to send his father off himself, without strangers around, so he could be at peace. After all, in his mind, if it hadn't been for him, his father would still be alive. So now, more than two months after his death, the elder Zhang's ashes lie unburied in a mortuary.

ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: "Chinese people are quite reserved," Zhang says. Taking care of his father, sending him off - this is how he wants to show his love, even if he couldn't say the words out loud when his father was alive.

Wuhan's government wants to prevent public gatherings, where the risk of virus transmission is high. So starting April 3, right before a holiday commemorating the dead, they banned people from freely gathering at cemeteries and crematoriums until the end of the month. They also want to control public expressions of grief, especially as anger over how local officials initially covered up the outbreak continues to roil the country.

Zhang Hai believes his father needs a send-off befitting of the Communist Party member who served his country. In the 1960s, he says his father participated in China's nuclear weapons project and suffered radiation exposure.

ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Zhang says he, his father and grandfather - they all loved their country.

The day after Zhang met with NPR, two government officials visited his home in Wuhan. He gets constant calls from neighborhood officials reminding him not to talk to media and demanding to know his location. He believes his phone is being monitored. Another family NPR tried to interview refused to meet because they had a camera installed by neighborhood officials outside their front door, monitoring them. A third family created a chat group for other mourning families. They were accosted by police and forced to disband the group.

But Zhang says he will continue his fight to bury his father alone. He says he owes that to his father.

ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: It was only after he died that Zhang realized how important his father was to him, he says. You feel their absence strongly. A person only ever has one father. Later, we take a walk through the Wuhan park that Zhang frequently brought his father to. He points out the bridge where he took a picture of his father on only last year. The scenery is still the same, he sighs, but the person he was once with is no longer here.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Wuhan.


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