74th Lecture - Edge Ball Politics: Shanghai Funeral Brokers and the Power of the "Fragile Middle"
One of the most controversial phenomenon in the Shanghai funeral industry today is the rise of “funeral brokers” (殯葬中介). They are mediators whose private businesses help the bereaved to arrange funerals in state funeral parlors (all funeral parlors are state-owned and belong directly to the Civil Affairs Bureaus in Shanghai). In urban Shanghai, these go-betweens handle the majority of funerals even though the bereaved could have arranged their funerals directly at the parlors without hiring a broker at all. Their popularity, however, does not mean that they enjoy a good reputation or that their operations are entirely legal. Government officials and the mainstream Chinese media discourse often describe these brokers as playing “edge ball” (打擦邊球)—a commonly used slam that roughly means “pushing the envelope.” In this talk, I will discuss who funeral brokers are, what they do, and what complicated structural positions they occupy in the Shanghai funeral industry. I will show how, on the one hand, funeral brokers with their edge ball playing have further pushed death into a moral vacuum. On the other, they also have provided a new platform for the inclusion of traditional and religious moralities in Shanghai death ritual. In spite, or perhaps because of their fragile structural position, this dual process of making death both moral and immoral has played a crucial role in shaping Shanghai funeral rituals today.