By Matthew Walsh

Once jailed for murder, Cao Yongsheng now makes a living caring for the dead, benefitting from a bold rehabilitation scheme that’s giving some of China’s most serious criminals a second life as funeral workers.

AFP China funeral
This photo taken on March 30, 2023 shows mortician Li Shuang, a reformed criminal who spent years in prison, dressing up a deceased person during a funeral service at a house in Fushun city, in China’s northeastern Liaoning province. Photo: Jade Gao/AFP.

It is a rare campaign to help former prisoners, many of whom say a lack of reform programmes, a resultant skills shortage and deep-seated discrimination push them towards reoffending.

Cao served 17 years behind bars for killing one person and severely injuring two others. He said working as a mortician allows him to “give comfort to the deceased… and atone for my crimes”.

“It’s a kind of spiritual absolution for me,” the 56-year-old told AFP, glancing around his funeral home in the northeastern city of Shenyang. Its shelves bulged with caskets, incense and stacks of paper money burned at Chinese funerals.

China is home to about 1.7 million prisoners, according to data compiled by the University of London’s World Prison Brief — the most of any country apart from the United States — but Beijing does not regularly disclose how many of them commit more crimes after leaving jail.

The volunteer-run project offers training and financial support so former prisoners can start new careers as undertakers, a novel way to keep them on the straight and narrow.

The group, known as “Mama Waves You Off to Heaven”, says it is the only such initiative in China focused on reforming serious offenders, usually defined as those who have served a decade or more in jail.

Cao, one of the earliest participants, said the scheme helped him trade unstable work and bleak prospects for a stable income, a happy marriage and deep roots in his community.

“It was a great turning point in my life,” he said as his business partner — another ex-convict — bustled around the store.

“Without this platform, perhaps I wouldn’t be here today.”

‘I had nothing’

More than 50 former prisoners have retrained as morticians under the scheme since it was set up five years ago, according to organisers.

It pairs them with other inmates and supplies vocational training as well as an initial cash injection to get their businesses off the ground.

The work is frequently intense, with undertakers often called in the middle of the night to visit bereaved families, wash and dress the deceased, and transport them to the crematorium — the final resting place for most people in China.

Participants say they are just happy to have a steady job.

Sun Fengjun said he had a hard time after his release in 2013.

In jail for two decades for assault, he emerged blinking into a society transformed by a rapid economic boom.

“I couldn’t even work a phone,” the 52-year-old said in his cramped funeral home outside a major hospital. “I had no family, nothing — and no confidence.”

That was compounded when many prospective employers demanded proof he had never broken the law.

Background checks are common in many industries in China, where convictions are listed permanently on criminal records, and effectively put him out of the running.

“In this society… we can’t do most jobs. We need the right certificate, but how are we supposed to get it?” said Sun.

Long path back

Chinese law says jails should remould offenders into law-abiding citizens through “a combination of punishment and reform, education and labour”.

Inmates are commonly put to work in manufacturing and other sectors but seldom learn skills necessary for life back on the outside, campaigners say.

While the funeral business is a comparatively accessible industry for former prisoners, traditional taboos around death mean it lacks social status.

But the low barriers to entry make the work “well-suited” to a group of people already accustomed to feeling ostracised, according to Fu Guangrong, the scheme’s founder.

AFP China funeral
This photo taken on March 29, 2023 shows Fu Guangrong, the founder of volunteer-run project “Mama Waves You Off to Heaven” speaking during an interview with AFP in Shenyang city, in China’s northeastern Liaoning province. Photo: Jade Gao/AFP.

“Through hard work and (good) service, they can earn the approval of other people and enjoy human dignity,” the sprightly 69-year-old lawyer told AFP.

Better known in China as “Mama Fu”, she is a longtime advocate for improving prisoners’ conditions and is treated as a surrogate mother by many ex-convicts.

Volunteers find other jobs for those who prefer not to work in the industry, said Fu, who even sometimes acts as a matchmaker.

Mortician Li Shuang, 45, said the scheme has helped him earn enough money to support his family while also “cleansing the soul”.

Li was freed in 2012 after serving more than 14 years for offences including assault and armed robbery.

“We were young and made mistakes… Our paths in life were bent in the middle,” he said.

“Now that we’ve fought our way back, I hope society won’t look down on us.”

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