Satellite images show crowds at China’s crematoriums as covid surges
By Samuel Oakford, Lily Kuo, Vic Chiang, Imogen Piper and Lyric Li
January 10, 2023 at 8:00 Japan Time
An overwhelmed funeral home in Chengdu, China, stopped offering memorial services, budgeting just two minutes for each family to say goodbye to loved ones before cremation. A funeral parlor on the outskirts of Beijing quickly cleared space for a new parking lot. Scalpers in Shanghai sold places in line at funeral homes for $300 a pop to grieving relatives trying to get cremation slots.
Still, the Chinese government continues to insist that fewer than 40 people have died in China of covid since Dec. 7, when “zero covid” restrictions aimed at entirely eliminating the virus were suddenly dropped — and infection numbers exploded.
A Washington Post examination of satellite imagery, firsthand videos posted to social media and witness accounts suggests that China’s covid death toll is far higher than the government’s tally, undermining Beijing’s claim that the outbreak remains under control.
Funeral homes across the country have seen a dramatic increase in activity compared with a few months ago and with the same time last year, as vehicles deliver bodies and residents line up to have their loved ones cremated, according to The Post’s analysis. It provides clear visual evidence that official records do not reflect the full toll of the outbreak.
Imagery captured by Maxar Technologies and provided to The Post showed an uptick in activity at funeral homes across six different cities, from Beijing in the north to Nanjing in the east, to Chengdu and Kunming in the southwest.
The imagery is consistent with interviews The Post conducted with mourning Chinese residents and funeral home workers. Social media posts verified by The Post reveal long wait times and overwhelmed staff at additional facilities. In all of the areas analyzed, the official death toll announced by authorities was in the single digits — if reported at all.
“I have worked here for six years and it has never been this busy,” said a receptionist at the Jiangnan Funeral Home in Chongqing in southwest China who described long lines of cars waiting to get into the facility during the days just before and after Christmas. The freezers were full and all eight incinerators were operating 24/7, she said.
“The phone has basically not stopped ringing,” she said, hanging up before she could give her name.
In China, when a family member dies at home or in the hospital, relatives typically call a funeral home or a third party to pick up the body. They register, often in person, with a death certificate and identification of their late relative before being assigned a time slot for the cremation — the main way the deceased are handled in Chinese cities — and memorial service.
It is not uncommon for funeral homes to be busier during the winter months. But the volume of traffic seen in satellite imagery, along with videos and photos showing a crush of people waiting inside and outside these facilities, suggests activity beyond that seen during comparable periods over the past year.
Distinctive vans commonly used as hearses were among vehicles identified in satellite footage and videos verified by The Post. Footage of long lines at night outside funeral homes indicates that some family members have waited overnight to make arrangements for their deceased.
Demand has become so high that at least four of the funeral homes contacted by The Post have stopped allowing memorial services and are now offering only cremation services and storage, an indication that the majority of people waiting at these facilities were there to process recently deceased loved ones.
Exactly how Chinese authorities count covid deaths has been a point of contention since the start of the pandemic. Since December, only people who died of respiratory failure have been included in the official count, regardless of whether they tested positive for the virus. Chinese health officials have tried to reassure the public by citing the low fatality rate, 0.1 percent, of the omicron variant. Officially, just over 5,200 people have died of covid in China since the beginning of the pandemic.
Projections made by international experts put the real death toll closer to 5,000 people each day, with several models predicting more than 1 million covid deaths in China in 2023. The elderly population, among whom booster rates are especially low, is expected to suffer the most.
“The good side is that they are dealing with the omicron, not the original or delta variants,” said Mai He, a professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the lead author of a 2020 report that used crematorium estimates to suggest underreporting of deaths in Wuhan, where the coronavirus first emerged. “The bad thing is, due to zero covid, most Chinese, their immune system has not been primed.”
China’s National Health Commission and its Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
But in a sharply worded commentary published Monday, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, defended the approach. “China follows a science-based approach in preventing and controlling COVID-19 and has been constantly fine-tuning its response measures in light of the evolving situation,” the commentary said.
For the Chinese Communist Party and leader Xi Jinping, however, evidence of exponentially higher-than-reported deaths poses a direct challenge to their narrative that, under their wise leadership, the Chinese approach to covid is superior to Western ones.
“China was so proud of its covid control measures until spring of 2021,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But look at it now. Everything has fallen apart and its pandemic response model has become a laughingstock. This is going to affect not just the leaders but the legitimacy of the regime itself.”
In November, new outbreaks emerged in some of China’s biggest cities, such as Beijing and Guangzhou, despite the government’s zero-covid policy, prompting a new tightening of measures. In response, there were mass protests of a size and scale not seen in decades.
After authorities dramatically lifted most restrictions in early December, infections ripped through the population, which has little natural immunity to the virus; most residents have been immunized with Chinese-made vaccines that are less effective against the omicron variant.
Beijing was among the earliest to be hit, with 80 percent or more of the population having contracted the virus by the end of December, according to estimates by Zeng Guang, former chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Videos showed hospitals in the Chinese capital packed with sick patients, many of them elderly.
A funeral home in Tongzhou, on the outskirts of Beijing, appears to have built a new parking area around that time, according to imagery captured by Maxar on Dec. 24.
Using additional imagery taken by Planet Labs, The Post determined that the expansion occurred sometime on or after Dec. 22. Two days later, over 100 vehicles were parked at the funeral home.
Staff at the funeral home were working overtime, cremating as many as 150 bodies a day, up from 40, according to a since-deleted report published by the state-run Beijing Youth Daily. Police were seen at the funeral home overseeing a steady stream of arrivals on Dec. 21, according to Reuters. But mentions of the facility were conspicuously absent from major Chinese web platforms when The Post searched them in early January.
Outside the Kunming Funeral Home in the southwestern province of Yunnan, the parking areas were unusually crowded on Jan. 5, compared with imagery taken a year earlier. Vehicles can be seen parked along streets near an entrance, where people are also visible.
On Dec. 28 and 29, an account on Douyin — the Chinese version of TikTok — posted photographs and a video showing crowded conditions at the facility. The Post could not confirm the exact time of filming, but the video included shots of heavy crowding taken both during the day and at night.
Another video, posted on Jan. 2, showed lines snaking through the same building. “This year’s epidemic. This many people are waiting in line through the night,” wrote the user who posted it.
The deceased are usually cremated within days in urban areas, said Huwy-min Lucia Liu, an anthropology professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. This means that people seeking services in large cities like Kunming were probably doing so for family members who had recently died, she said.
“People waiting outside the funeral parlor at night would not be there to attend a funeral as guests,” Liu said. “They might be bereaved families or funeral brokers there representing bereaved families who are waiting to get in first thing in the morning to make arrangements for memorial services and cremation. Normally, that would not require lining up, let alone doing so at night.”
The Post verified videos taken since late December showing crowds outside the Baoxing and Longhua funeral parlors, two large facilities in central Shanghai.
One video, taken at night and posted to Douyin in the early hours of Dec. 28 showed a long line outside Baoxing. The uploader commented that the line consisted of family members as well as “scalpers” holding spaces, who had waited for more than five hours. Police have publicly warned against scalping.
“I have never seen such a long line outside Baoxing,” said George Mason’s Liu, who has studied the funeral industry in the city. “Having spent 18 months in various Shanghai funeral parlors, this long line is definitely unusual,” she said.
For Shi, a 27-year-old Shanghai resident whose father died of covid just a month after turning 60, the process at the Baoxing Funeral Home was especially grueling. His father died at home on Dec. 21 but the funeral parlor told Shi that because of the number of people waiting, it would be another five days before arrangements could be made for his cremation. The family would have to keep the body at home in the meantime.
To make sure he got a slot for his father, Shi started queuing at 9 p.m. the night before. When he arrived, there were already 50 people in line. Police were on-site to keep order. He waited through the night, finally getting a number for his father at 8 a.m. the next day; the cremation was conducted a few hours later at another site. No family members were allowed to attend. Shi was told the ashes would be available for collection in a month or two.
“For ordinary families like us, this is definitely a heavy blow,” Shi said. Although Shi’s father tested positive before he died, the cause of death was listed as “underlying disease.”
“Is this not a blatant lie?” he asked.
In Nanjing, a major city northwest of Shanghai, Maxar satellite imagery from Jan. 3 captured a line of white vehicles along a road inside the Nanjing Funeral Home, a sprawling complex built in 2013. A video posted on Twitter on Dec. 23 showed vans stretching to a road south of the complex. The Post could not confirm the date the footage was recorded.
Similar scenes were recorded north of the city, at the Liuhe District Funeral Home. A resident named Jin, who gave only her surname because of security concerns, described waiting for almost a full day to deliver the body of her grandfather to the facility for cremation.
A video Jin posted and later deleted from Douyin showed a long line of vans and plumes of smoke filling the sky overhead. The Post verified that video, along with another Jin shared that showed the same types of vans waiting along Mayuxian Road, more than 1,000 feet from the facility.
Jin said she saw at least 40 vans outside the funeral home, as well as residents who had been apparently unable to secure a van transporting bodies on small utility trolleys. A receptionist at the funeral home said all the freezers for storing cadavers were full.
“Our driver told me that he has been doing this job for decades but he has never seen anything like this,” Jin, 29, said. “It’s really sad.”
At the Donglin Funeral Home in Chengdu in the southwestern province of Sichuan, satellite imagery taken by Maxar on Dec. 21 showed dozens of vehicles parked around the complex, including white vehicles resembling vans used to transport bodies. An image taken a year earlier, on Dec. 18, 2021, showed the funeral home practically empty of vehicles.
Facing overwhelming demand, Donglin has had to curtail normal operations, staff said.
“Due to the unusual circumstances, we are suspending all memorial services, but families can still bid farewell to the deceased prior to cremation,” a receptionist told The Post on Thursday.
When asked how long families had to say goodbye, she added: “Two minutes.”
A nationwide surge
In addition to Chengdu, Kunming, Nanjing and Beijing, The Post also found increased traffic at funeral homes in Tangshan, a city east of Beijing, and Huzhou, near Shanghai.
“As a general trend, we have seen increased vehicle activity and traffic at a number of funeral homes and crematoriums in Chinese cities during the past month when compared to similar time periods in past years,” Stephen Wood, senior director of Maxar News Bureau, said in an email.
The funeral homes captured by satellite imagery offer a snapshot of what is happening across the country.
People working at funeral homes in other parts of the country have provided further evidence of what is happening on the ground. The receptionist at the Jiangnan Funeral Home in Chongqing described how workers were split into three shifts so the home could operate 24 hours a day. “From when I started work to when I got off, the lobby area was totally full of people arranging cremations,” she said.
At Jingyunshan, a funeral parlor in Guiyang, the capital of the southwestern province of Guizhou, a receptionist said they handled up to 250 bodies a day during the last two weeks of December — more than twice the facility’s daily peak before covid restrictions were lifted. Storage space was full and incinerators were operating 24 hours a day.
There have also been numerous obituaries announcing the deaths of public figures whose passing was not reflected in the official count. They include a former diplomat who helped negotiate Hong Kong’s handover to China, whose wife said he had covid; and the designer of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics mascot, who died of a “severe cold.”
Pressed on the real death count, authorities have tried to assuage the public.
Liang Wannian, a top adviser on the government’s coronavirus response team, said at a news conference late last month that the authorities would only be able to investigate covid deaths after the current wave. Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, added that the center has been analyzing excess mortality rates and would release the results later.
Those answers may not come soon enough for residents.
In Jinan, the capital of the eastern province of Shandong, Wang, 24, drove past the Jinan Funeral Home at 3 a.m. on Dec. 30 and saw almost 100 people waiting in line in the cold. He stopped to record the scene — some in the group were fighting after a person had attempted to cut in line. Wang, who gave only his surname for fear of retribution by authorities, posted the video on Douyin but later found that the authorities had censored it.
“It’s hard for me to understand why they want to shut our mouths,” he said.
Theodora Yu in Hong Kong and Christian Shepherd in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.