Grave Stakes

7 minute read

They were big, mean-looking thugs, the corners of their down-turned mouths frothing with betel-nut juice. And the message they delivered to Huang Mei-shu that day last August was almost too horrible to contemplate. “We have your sister,” they said. “She stinks. Pay $5,000 if you want her back in one piece.” Huang’s first instinct was to avoid trouble and fork over the cash. But times were tough for the Taipei slum-dweller, and the most she could rustle up was $500a sum the kidnappers gruffly rejected. Scared and desperate, she went to the police. They refused to help.

So Huang did what few other Taiwanese in her position had ever done: she fought back. In an emotional press conference, she berated the goons and demanded the authorities take swift, merciless action. The move made her an instant celebrity, with newspapers printing running accounts of her ordeal. The public huffed. Politicians puffed. And, after some delay, a posse of high-ranking police officers was dispatched to tackle the case. The hostage-takers fled and on Sept. 4, more than four weeks into her nightmare, Huang was able to retrieve her sister.

She was already dead, of course. That sad news had been known from the beginning. Huang’s tormentors, you see, were not members of some professional kidnapping-for-ransom gang. They were morticiansemployees of one of the hundreds of companies that compete for market share in Taiwan’s bizarre and unruly funeral industry. In Europe and the U.S., “death care” is a multibillion-dollar business, dominated by colossal corporations with stock-market listings, ISO ratings, and executives recruited from leading business schools. It’s a big industry in Taiwan too (residents spend around $3 billion a year on funerals), but for centuries, local culture has had it that undertakers are bearers of bad luck, dirty people whose social status ranks somewhere between prostitutes and earthworms. No self-respecting Taiwanese becomes a mortician, so the business of preparing the dead for the afterworld has fallen to the underworld and the gangsters who inhabit it.

Typically, these hoodlums bribe police and hospital officials for information about critically ill patients, traffic accidents or shootings. When they receive word of a fatality, they swoop in to claim the body and begin preparations for the funeral, even before relatives have been notified. There have been several cases of funeral companies whisking away cadavers only to discover later that the bodies are still breathing. Often, accident sites and hospital emergency rooms become the scenes of bloody brawls as morticians battle over access to the deceased. When family members arrive to claim their loved ones, they are presented with a bill and a choice: pay up, get lost or get hurt. Huang was asked to pay for the “storage” of her sister’s “smelly” body. The only thing unusual about her case is that she didn’t oblige. Most Taiwanese are too grief-stricken or scared to put up a fuss.

Thanks in part to the public outcry that followed Huang’s struggle, government officials have been fighting to clean up Taiwan’s funeral business. Regulations that Chen Jeaw-mei, Taipei’s director of social affairs, plans to pass on soon to the city council for approval include, for example, forcing funeral company operators to publish their prices ahead of time and to submit to regular evaluations. Some hospitals in major cities now require morticians to enter lotteries to determine which of them are given access to family members of critically ill patients.

But taking on Taiwan’s undertakers can be dangerous work. In April, Chen received a letter threatening government officials who had forced funeral companies “to the edge of survival.” Its authors promised to take three of Chen’s underlings “for a ride,” and added that “Director Wu can tell you a good story about how he got shot at.” The reference is to a former director of the Taipei Office of Funeral Management (OFM) whose car window was smashed last year, presumably by a bullet. “Some of these funeral companies are run by gangsters,” says Lin Liang-sheng, an OFM section chief. “But we have to keep fighting. We can’t be scared.”

Suspicions that some of Taiwan’s undertakers are not just second-rate gangsters, but members of the island’s biggest and most notorious triad gangs, surfaced around 15 years ago when funeral companies began sellingat wholesale pricesthe services of exotic dancers from clubs thought to be owned by the mafia. Did grandpa like the nightlife? Then why not hire a truckload of strippers to perform at his funeral? The business got so big that, by some estimates, guests at nearly one-third of funerals were being entertained by naked women. A number of municipalities have since cracked down on the practice, but it remains common in rural areas to see funeral carts hauling flocks of scantily dressed girls from local nightclubs or brothels.

Taiwan’s funeral strippers get rave reviews. But Taiwanese complain that most of the services offered by the island’s morticians are downright shoddy. The average price for a memorial service is $12,000, compared with $5,000 in the U.S.

On a recent afternoon at Kao-hsiung’s municipal graveyard, six or seven separate processionseach towing a musical band hired from one of the city’s funeral companiesare vying for space at the crematorium. The musicians occasionally squeak out a desultory tune, unrecognizable over the noise from the other bands, but mostly they laugh and smoke cigarettes as the coffins are hoisted into the ovens. Women who have been employed to mourn for the deceaseda common practice in Taiwando so halfheartedly, whimpering rather than weeping. The funeral cloth is ragged, flowers are wilted, the hearses old and decrepit. “The level of service here is disgraceful,” says Deng Wen-lung, a university lecturer in life and death studies who has accompanied a visitor to the scene. “Taiwanese have to be taught they can demand something better.”

Not all of Taiwan’s morticians are crooked. And police say there is no conclusive proof that any of them have connections to Taiwan’s largest organized crime gangs. But a walk down the Taipei street where the ramshackle offices of most of the city’s funeral companies are located reveals a world that is at least murky, if not outright illicit. At the sight of a journalist, most of the morticians disappear through back doors or behave as if they are mute. One, Lo Shuan-lin of the Lucky Flower Village Funeral Co., complains his police informants are charging too much. “The cops want $600 for a corpse,” he says, adding that the high prices are eating away at the funeral companies’ bottom lines, forcing them to pursue customers more “aggressively.”

Another mortician agrees to talk in more detail, but asks to remain anonymous because he’s worried that he “might not live to see tomorrow’s sunrise.” He is a man of imposing girth, dressed in a silk shirt printed with fierce-looking dragons. His office is three flights up a dark, narrow staircase and everything in itthe stuffed tiger, the golden gongis half concealed by red lighting and a haze of incense smoke. He insists government reforms are being orchestrated by officials with ties to larger funeral companies that want to see firms like his go belly up. Threatening these officials’ lives is necessary to “show the public what’s at stake,” he says, twisting a diamond-crusted ring around his fat forefinger.

At this point his girlfriend, in tight jeans and high heels, slithers into the room, curls up on a chair and lights an extra-long cigarette. The mor-tician’s skinny sidekick hovers nearby, cracking his knuckles. “This is a competitive business,” he says. “You have to expect some violence.”

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