A funeral hall replicates a former classroom at Shanghai Ningsan Primary School, with blackboard, chairs and desks all positioned as they once were. Nearby, a rickshaw, gramophone and photos of old shikumen stone-gate houses evoke a bygone era.
Everything is the same, but someone is missing.
Classmate Yang Xiaolan died of cancer at age 62 and expressed a desire for a simple funeral to celebrate the old school days with former classmates.
Twenty-five former classmates attended the service at Fushouyuan Cemetery in the Qingpu District. One flew in from Canada to attend the farewell.
The ceremony featured a short film on their time together in school 50 years ago and other events in Yang's life. Her classmates wore red scarves, just as they did as pupils. They shared stories of her during the service and ended the funeral in old class songs before the urn with her ashes was interred.
"It was a simple funeral, but it is what she wanted," said classmate Chen Jian, 65. "A flood of memories came with the film. Time flashed back, and it seemed that Yang was still with us. I knew her since we were 8 years old. We grew up together."
Yang never married and had no children. Her classmates were her family. They accompanied her to hospital and were with her when she died.
Cui Weiguo, another classmate, said Yang was the most beautiful girl in their class. "We wanted to do everything she asked us to do in her dying days," he said.
An increasing number of Shanghai residents are choosing tailored funerals, memorial services or farewell ceremony for their dearly departed, but cemetery officials said Yang's was the first one held according to the dying wishes of a deceased person.
"When we first started this kind of customized service several years ago, few people accepted the concept, but now we have a 20 percent increase of requests for tailored farewells," said Wei Qian, who handled the arrangements for Yang's funeral.
"Through video and music, the pain of survivors can be relieved a bit, and their memories of the deceased can be laid to rest in their hearts," she said.
Traditional funerals in China are marked by mourning, bowing and laying flowers, without any extra procedures.
"Years ago, a tailored funeral was unimaginable in China," said Gu Jun, a sociologist at Shanghai University. "But the public mindset is changing, and people are looking at alternatives and even discussing them before death." Of course, like any funeral, the proceedings speak to the survivors and not the deceased, he added.
The price of customized funerals varies from several thousand yuan to more than 100,000 yuan (US14,700) depending on content.
Some families chose a tailored service to memorialize someone who died years ago, when such farewells were not available, said Wei.
She said she once arranged a memorial ceremony for a 20-year-old man who died of a football injury. At the request of his parents, the funeral hall was designed as a pitch, with football uniforms displayed and sports music played. His teammates attended the ceremony.
At the end of that ceremony, every participant received a USB disk shaped like a football, containing a short film on the player's life.
"We wanted to remember him the way he would have wanted," said the man's father, who declined to be identified. "I believe he would have liked this."
Another funeral was designed as a painting and photographic exhibition to bid farewell to a woman who loved the arts and died of cancer.
At her service, participants drank afternoon tea and coffee, listened to music and shared memories of her.
Another funeral took the theme "daughter of sea" to mourn a girl who drowned while swimming.
"She loved the sea and her parents wanted her to return to the embrace of the water," Wei said.