Friday 17 August 2012

Taiwan's Funeral and Cremation Statistics (2001–2011)

After looking at the Taiwanese government's data on religious identity, the obvious next step was to try to spot trends in the various types of funerals conducted on the island.  The results have not been so obvious.

I have a lot to learn about the funeral business in Taiwan.  Somehow, they're managing to bury, cremate and inter vastly more people than the number who actually die on the island.  I assume that there are some very interesting reasons for the discrepancies in these numbers (perhaps some overseas Chinese are shipping their remains to Taiwan, etc.) but it is wildly incongruous that 139,125 corpses were cremated (火化場) in Taiwan in 2011.  Why?  Well, only 153,206 people died in Taiwan in that year (meaning that the cremations would seem to be, prima facie, more than 90% of the deaths), and a further 68,336 corpses were sent to funeral homes (殯儀館); and when you add those two figures together, you're looking at much, much more than 100% of the corpses that you would expect to be in circulation.

Although a human corpse may be reduced to ashes just once, apparently the process of interring the relics happens repeatedly in 21st century Taiwan.  As a cultural outsider, I'm assuming that a large portion of the repeated interring are the result of urbanization, land-scarcity, and the resulting relocation of human remains from one place to another.  I do not know if families now relocate human remains for other reasons (perhaps to consolidate remains from a family in a single location, that were formerly dispersed at various sites, or perhaps some families simply upgrade their cenotaphs).  I've certainly read about traditional re-burials and re-interring of remains (in passing) in the last few centuries of Chinese tradition.  However, starting only in the year 2008, the government started tracking a separate statistic for the number of ashes "moved out"; I assume that the majority of the remains "moved out" of one location are then interred again in another location, meaning that the statistics for the number interred in one particular year are not (alas) proportional to the number of deaths in that year.

Just how disproportionate do the statistics get?  In the year 2011 alone, we had 175,956 ash reliquaries (骨灰) interred in Taiwan, but only 153,206 people died.  When you look at the first chart, you can see that the black line for ashes interred exceeds the number of deaths per annum.

Although some (unknown) number of these could be people who died abroad whose families relocated (or repatriated) the remains to Taiwan, a large proportion of this total must have been interred some number of years after the death --and not necessarily interred for the first time.  Even if we subtract the number of ash reliquaries recorded as "moved out" (only 4,206) from the number interred in the same year, we still have a number that exceeds 100% of deaths in 2011.

In other words, the numbers don't make sense, but they probably fail to make sense for reasons that are really interesting, and deserve further research.  I have no idea whom I could ask for more information on this subject (has anyone heard of a professor with some salient research background?).

I'm still inclined to consider the funeral statistics relative to the total number of deaths on the island, because population has grown significantly (2001–2011) and the number of deaths increased from 127,892 (in 2001) to 153,206 (in 2011).  I have to compensate for population growth somehow, and measuring funerals relative to deaths makes more sense than births (or total population).

In looking at the statistics, it is clear that the government is trying to track the total amount of ground occupied by cemeteries and cenotaphs of various kinds (and, yes, the total area is growing) but the methodology of what exactly they're tracking under these headings is unclear to me.  I have separate statistics from the Taiwanese government for (1) bone relics 骨骸, (2) ash relics 骨灰, (3) planned burials, in contrast to (4) unplanned burials (a distinction that I assume concerns the type of land occupied by the grave); and then there is also the aforementioned contrast between the numbered of corpses registered at (5) the crematorium 火化場 and (6) the funeral home 殯儀館.  It is entirely possible that all of these categories are overlapping (and double-counting) in ways that I can't guess at.  None of them add up to 100% of anything, and, as explained, they certainly exceed the 100% standard we might expect to find in the number of deaths per annum.

As to what the real issues are at work here, I don't yet know: perhaps some social scientist will get in touch with me and explain how the various government registries really work.