From murder to mortician: China’s bold scheme to rehabilitate serious criminals

Mortician Li Shuang, a reformed criminal who now makes a living caring for the dead. PIcture courtesy of Bangkok Post.

A special rehabilitation program in Shenyang, a city in northeastern China, is offering ex-prisoners a chance to become a mortician or funeral workers and reintegrate into society.

The initiative, named Mama Waves You Off to Heaven, aims to address the challenges faced by ex-convicts who deal with discrimination, lack of reform programmes, and a resultant skills shortage that often pushes them towards reoffending.

Cao Yongsheng is one such individual benefiting from the scheme. Previously jailed for 17 years for murder and causing grievous injuries, the 56 year old has found working as a mortician to be an effective way to atone for his past actions. He claims “it’s a kind of spiritual absolution” for him. Cao’s journey from unstable work to a steady income, happy marriage, and strong community roots was made possible by the programme, making it a “great turning point” in his life.

Launched five years ago, the volunteer-run project focuses on reforming serious offenders, those who have served ten years or more in jail. To date, over 50 former prisoners have retrained as morticians through the initiative. The programme offers training and financial support, allowing former inmates to embark on new careers in the funeral industry, keeping them on the right track.

In China, the funeral business is relatively more accessible for ex-convicts but carries a low social status due to traditional death-related taboos. Nonetheless, this fact, along with low barriers to entry and hard work, makes the industry suitable for reintegrating those who may already feel ostracised from society, Bangkok Post reported.

Fu Guangrong, a 69 year old lawyer and the founder of the scheme, believes that through their dedication and good service, former prisoners can regain societal approval and human dignity.

However, beyond the funeral industry, many released prisoners like 52 year old Sun Fengjun, who served 20 years for assault, struggle to find employment due to permanent convictions listed on their criminal records. Background checks, a common requirement in many industries, effectively eliminate their chances. Additionally, despite Chinese law stating that offenders should be reformed through education and labour in prison, campaigners assert that most inmates seldom gain the necessary skills to adapt to life outside prison.

Although Mama Waves You Off to Heaven focuses primarily on training morticians, its volunteers also help those uninterested in the profession find alternative employment. For those involved in the programme, like Li Shuang, 45, who served over 14 years for offences like assault and armed robbery, the scheme has given them a second chance at life.

China NewsWorld News


With a Bachelor's Degree in English, Jenn has plenty of experience writing and editing on different topics. After spending many years teaching English in Thailand, Jenn has come to love writing about Thai culture and the experience of being an ex-pat in Thailand. During long holidays, she travels to North of Thailand just to have Khao Soi!

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