In southern China, the future dead compete with the living for space

"If you don’t have a coffin by the age of 30, then you are very brazen."

BEIJING -- Tongcheng county government in central China, Hubei province has demolished more than 80,000 illegal tombs since July 2017.

The tombs are empty and were built by villagers for use after they die. But the large number of illegal, reserved tomb spaces has limited room for urban development, according to the local government.

"There are about 78,000 people over age 65 in Tongcheng County and 95 percent of them have built their tombs," Haoer Liu from the Tongcheng Civil Affairs Bureau told ABC News.

"The villagers want to choose a spot with good Fengshui to build on for themselves, and their sons, even for their grandsons who are still young children," she added, referring to the Chinese practice of selecting sites and building in harmony with natural and spiritual forces.

There is an old saying in Tongcheng County that roughly translates to, "If you don’t have a coffin by the age of 30, then you are very brazen."

Before modern times, living to the age of 50 was considered a very long life and many villagers in the area still believe building their own tombs and raising children are the two most important things in life.

The Chinese believe in eternal life and, in Chinese folk culture, people are believed to move from the visible “Yang” world to the invisible “Yin” world. They also need a house to live in even after death, preferably somewhere close to their offspring.

But living space in the mountainous region of Tongcheng County, still considered one of the poorest places in China, is very limited and there is also little room for development, according to Liu.

Because of the need for more building space, the county government has cleared out 895 tombs built in a downtown public park since last July.

Residents have not been allowed to build graveyards without the government’s permission since 1997.

But the Chinese funeral business is one of the top ten most profitable industries in the country. The average cost for a tomb in a legal graveyard in Beijing or Shanghai is equivalent to $10,000 per square meter.

In Tongcheng County, the government has built a public graveyard with enough tombs for county residents for the next 70 years, Liu said. The villagers whose tombs were demolished will be provided with a new resting place in the public graveyard.