Six elderly people in China are said to have committed suicide to ensure they died before new regulations banning coffin burials come into force, a newspaper reported on Wednesday.

China has a tradition dating back thousands of years of ancestor worship, which usually requires families to bury their relatives and construct a tomb. But in recent years local governments across the country have demolished tombs as part of a national campaign encouraging cremation, in an attempt to save on limited land resources.

Government officials in Anqing, a city in the eastern province of Anhui, ordered that all locals who die after June 1 should be cremated, the Beijing News daily reported. Six elderly people in the area committed suicide ‘to avoid the new regulations on funerals’, the newspaper quoted family members of the deceased as saying.

It said government officials began forcibly to confiscate coffins from locals in May, which ‘had a huge psychological impact’ on them. But it added a note of scepticism, saying that the reasons for the suicides were ‘complex’ despite the family claims. One 91-year-old woman named Wu Zhengde hanged herself on May 5 after learning of the new regulations, the report said. Another woman, Zheng Shifang, 83, killed herself after officials sawed her coffin in two in front of her. A 68-year-old woman killed herself by jumping into a well, while others drank poison. The local government’s propaganda department told media that the suicides were not connected to the burial ban, and people had given up their coffins voluntarily.

‘China is big, death and sickness amongst the elderly is normal,’ the report quoted a local official as saying. The paper quoted Beijing-based lawyer Zheng Daoli as saying the seizures were illegal because coffins were the property of their owners. Elsewhere in China local officials have launched massive campaigns to ‘flatten graves’ to create land for farming and development.

Officials in the central province of Henan demolished 400,000 graves in 2012, local media reported. The case provoked a nationwide outcry. Locals in Anqing - who spend up to a decade preparing their coffins - were only informed of the burial ban in April, two months before the new regulations were due to come into force, the Beijing News said. It quoted a local surnamed Shi as saying: ‘I’ve had a hard life, and when I’m dead I’d like to sleep somewhere protected from the rain - inside a coffin.’