For many people, two wardrobes stand apart as the most important clothes we will ever put on: what we wear during our wedding, and how we are dressed for our own funeral.
Fang Fang, a 30-year-old part-time shroud model from Dalian, a port city in northeastern China’s Liaoning province, is breaking taboos and enduring criticisms by modelling burial outfits to help grieving family members properly clothe their dead loved ones.
The undertaker, who has worked in the field since she graduated from college in 2013, tries on all sorts of clothes designed for dead people – from a traditional Hanfu or Qipao to more modern suits – and posts them on Douyin, China’s TikTok.
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Fang started modelling the clothes fairly recently and decided it was a worthy undertaking because it is a way to treat the dead with similar respect as the living, if not more.
“Many of the visitors to our store will not even touch the clothes because it is taboo to them,” Fang said.
“There has to be someone to deal with the clothes … I try them on, so the family can decide whether there is a problem. They can also find mistakes that need improvements which can be fixed later.”
Unlike many other undertakers, forced into the industry after failing to get a “normal” job, Fang was determined to take this job the day she left college, where she majored in cemetery management.
“My father warned me when I decided to become an undertaker: ‘do not regret it.’ I told him ‘no, I would never regret it’,” she recalled.
Many of the visitors to our store will not even touch the clothes because it is taboo to them. There has to be someone to deal with the clothes.
Fang Fang, undertaker who models clothes
A typical day for Fang involves cleaning the body, putting on make-up, and dressing the person. She said she enjoys the job because her role in society is to bring comfort to people.
“Some people die with a bitter face. When I use my hands to make them look peaceful, I am happy and satisfied because their families would be very grateful,” she said.
But Fang’s recent decision to don the potential outfits for dead people has resulted in online hatred.
Some people say nasty things like, “you should lie down – you’ll look just like the dead that way.”
“You really have no boundary of any kind,” another commented on Douyin.
Fang laughs it off: “They can say whatever they like. I’ll just be myself.”
The stereotypes about being an undertaker come from deep-rooted beliefs in China, and across many cultures worldwide, that dealing with death brings bad luck.
“Some of my classmates in secondary school were very surprised when I told them about my job. ‘Why do you do this? Why don’t you choose something else?’ they asked as if my work made me inferior to others,” she said.
Fang admitted she was afraid in the early days of her career, even though a more senior undertaker accompanied her.
“The first time I was dispatched, I did a lot of thinking along the way. I had not touched a corpse before. I wondered crazy thoughts like if he would suddenly sit up … but I was lucky. It turned out to be a very peaceful granny and I did not get frightened at all,” she recalled.
“Then I had no fear the second and the third time,” she said.
Fang has come across death in many forms during her career, but she says the worst is when she treats the parents of children or when young people die before their parents.
And Fang does not try to suppress her emotions. One time, when a mother in her 30s died of cancer and left behind a daughter who was only three, she was asked to go to their home and fetch a picture of the mother.
“The moment I entered, I saw her husband was crying, but the girl just greeted me calmly and politely. The kid asked me to sit and play with her … She had no idea what was going on. I burst into tears when she talked to me like that,” Fang said.
In recent years, the stigma towards undertakers has become less profound, and the participation of more young has brought innovation to this traditional industry, Fang said.
Compared with traditional rituals, young people tend to create a more individualised farewell for families of the deceased, she said.
“For example, we used to only use traditional funeral music to mourn the dead. But as the younger generation joins the sector, the relatives are asked to pick music the person would have liked to play,” she said.
“It’s not necessarily sad funeral music. It can be any other piece they liked or their beloved ones liked, which would make the ceremony heart-warming, not just sad.”
Thriving social media has also given the public more opportunities to learn about and appreciate the work of people like Fang.
Luo Liang, one of Fang’s fans on Douyin, said she respected her because of her attitude towards life. “She makes us cherish life and love the one we’re with,” she said.
“What she does is to make those alive in awe of life, and those dead leave with dignity,” another follower named Jiu Qianqi said.
Another post-1990s female worker in the industry, Ren Sainan, went viral in the Chinese online community late last year for designing and modelling apparel for dead people.
She won widespread approval after appearing in a video interview asking people to treat her job “rationally” and “stop regarding me as a ‘god of plague’.”
China’s demographic reality might result in a reckoning in how society treats the dead.
The number of people that die every year in China has grown since 2013 as the country has aged rapidly. According to official data, the number of annual deaths has grown from 9.72 million per year in 2013 to 9.98 million in 2019.
The funeral service market has expanded as a result. Total sales in the industry nearly doubled, from 139.5 billion yuan (US$21.6 billion) in 2013 to 263.8 billion yuan (US$40.8 billion) in 2020, according to Shenzhen-based research firm Qianzhan, an industry research institute.
For Fang, helping people get through what is often the most challenging event in their lives has turned out to be her calling.
“In fact, the longer I am in this profession, the more I enjoy it,” she said.
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