BEIJING/HONG KONG, Dec 21 (Reuters) – Some residents in Beijing face waiting days to cremate relatives or paying steep fees to secure timely services, funeral home workers said, indicating a growing death toll as the Chinese capital battles a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases.

Workers at two different funeral parlours in Beijing told Reuters over the weekend there has been a surge in residents looking to cremate deceased relatives, leading to queues and delays.

Security guards were deployed this week at the entrance of a designated COVID crematorium in Beijing where Reuters reporters on Saturday saw a long line of hearses and workers in hazmat suits carrying the dead inside. Reuters could not establish if the deaths were due to COVID.

The backlog has prompted some residents to seek workarounds, such as ditching hearses and using their own cars to carry bodies to funeral parlours, said a worker at the large Babaoshan funeral parlour in western Beijing.

The worker declined to be named as they were not authorised to speak to the media.

Another worker at the Babaoshan parlour is advertising customers can skip the long queuing and registration process – for a 26,000 yuan ($3,730) fee.

“For whole of Beijing, speedy arrangement of hearses, no queue for cremation,” the worker said in a plug for service on the popular short video app Douyin.

The fee being charged exceeds all-in-one funeral service packages advertised in the city.

For example, Beijing-based Tianshunxiang charges 19,800 yuan to service a funeral ceremony for over 50 people, a Mercedes-Benz hearse and cremation, while its cheapest package, which includes a hearse and cremation, costs 6,800 yuan, according to its website.

Due to the growing backlog, a banking sector professional in Beijing said her family decided to pay a third party almost 20,000 yuan just to move the body of a recently deceased family member to the Babaoshan funeral home.

The woman, surnamed Chen, said the relative who was over 90 had died of COVID late last week and the body would have been left at home if not for paying the fee after emergency workers said morgues at public hospitals were full and they could not make arrangements. The family still had to wait four to five days for cremation, she added.

Babaoshan funeral home could not immediately be reached for comment.

COVID IMPACT UNCLEAR

There was a sizeable police presence at a crematorium in Beijing’s Tongzhou district on Wednesday morning, according to a Reuters witness.

The crematorium was busy with a steady stream of arrivals, a steady queue of around 40 hearses waiting to enter and a full parking lot.

The extent to which the surge in demand is being caused by the ongoing wave of COVID-19 infections is unclear.

Moreover, the cold winter in northern China, where Beijing is located, is often a cause of surges in deaths among the elderly, making it even more difficult to gauge the lethality of a COVID wave in the absence of transparent data.

China, which uses a narrow definition for classifying COVID fatalities, reported no new COVID deaths for Dec. 20, compared with five the previous day.

Authorities clarified on Tuesday that only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting COVID will be classified as COVID deaths.

Total fatalities since the pandemic began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan almost three years ago were revised to 5,241 after removing one death in Beijing.

Many social media users on China’s Twitter-like Weibo and overseas experts have voiced suspicions about the country’s official death rate.

The Beijing municipal government and National Health Commission did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the apparent rise in deaths in Beijing.

($1 = 6.9683 Chinese yuan renminbi)

Reporting by Eduardo Baptista, Albee Zhang, Thomas Peter and Alessandro Diviggiano in Beijing; Julie Zhu in Hong Kong; Editing by Sumeet Chatterjee and Lincoln Feast.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.