Per square foot, it has become more expensive to house the dead than the living,” says Kwok Hoi Pong, Chairman of the Hong Kong Funeral Business Association. “A niche for an urn in a private columbarium in the best position can cost up to HK$1.8m. This is the phenomenon in Hong Kong.” A ground burial plot can cost anywhere between HK$3m (£300,000) and HK$5m, but in the city’s congested cemeteries, vacancies rarely become available. Land is so scarce that 90% of the 48,000 people a year who die in Hong Kong are cremated. But increasingly finding the space even to store ashes is becoming nigh on impossible. A standard niche at a public columbarium costs HK$2,800 – but the waiting time for space is over four years. Those who are not prepared to wait must pay out considerably more for a niche in a privately owned columbarium – a space no bigger than a shoebox. With the most expensive residential property in Hong Kong selling for HK$180,000 per sq ft, it costs more to house the dead than the living.
When her mother passed away last November, Cecilia Chan, Professor of Social Work at the University of Hong Kong, arranged cremation and scattering of the ashes in a remembrance garden, in what is known locally as a “green burial.” While Chan says green burial is “one of the most pragmatic options in a place this congested and costly,” it is not a popular alternative. “In line with traditional Chinese customs, we prefer to store our ancestors’ ashes in a niche at a columbarium,” says Kwok. “A physical place where we can pay respects, give offerings and receive blessings. Many Chinese people are still very conservative.” Concerned that the city’s private columbarium operators were exploiting people’s desperation to store their loved ones’ ashes, the government introduced the Private Columbaria Ordinance in 2017 to regulate the industry. Now operators must reapply for a licence and meet stricter standards. So far no licences have been approved and critics worry the move will not ease costs. “Given that only some of the private columbariums will meet the requirements in order to get a licence, I believe the price of niches will go up because it’s a free market,” says Kwok. “We estimate that the price of a niche will rise by 30% once the private columbariums are issued a licence.”
Betsy Ma, Sales Director at Sage Funeral Services, estimates that around 200,000 sets of ashes in Hong Kong are waiting for a niche space, with many stored at funeral parlours for a fee of HK$300-800 a month. To meet demand, designers are getting creative. In 2012, the design consultancy Bread Studio proposed turning an ocean liner into a cemetery called Floating Eternity with space for 370,000 sets of ashes – but the designers this week said the feasibility study was going slowly and they were awaiting a decision from the client and other consultants. A similar proposal in 2016 sought investors for a plan to convert a cruise ship into a floating columbarium with restaurants, a hotel and space for 48,000 urns.
Meanwhile, the government’s Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has spent the last decade trying to promote green burials. It has not been an easy sell – scattering ashes at gardens of remembrance or at sea clashes with long-held Chinese beliefs about venerating the dead. Last year there were 7,046 green burials in Hong Kong – under 15% of the total. In addition to routine publicity and promotion efforts, the government launched a dedicated website on the promotion of green burial. This year it also increased the number of gardens of remembrance in Hong Kong to a total of 14. “In the long run, we hope to see green burial gaining wider social acceptance and becoming a preferred way to dispose of cremated ashes with our persistent efforts,” says Florence Wong, a spokeswoman for the Food and Health Bureau. “The government has been taking active steps bring about a gradual change in mindset and culture in the hope that this environment-friendly and sustainable means of handling human ashes will become more widely accepted.” Some believe the government should also encourage people to store ashes at home, yet this also clashes with tradition. Many locals are uneasy about storing ashes at home, believing that the living and dead should be kept separate to avoid attracting ghosts.
In the meantime, for those who prefer to store their ancestors’ ashes in a public columbarium, it is a waiting game, with no new niche spaces available in the city. “It’s frustrating, to say the least,” says Stephanie Fung, 51, an office worker whose father passed away two years ago. “My dad didn’t want his ashes scattered all over the place. We’ve been storing his ashes in the funeral shop for more than a year – I really don’t like the feeling of being in limbo. It doesn’t feel respectful. I won’t have peace of mind until we get a niche space.” Frustrated with the situation in Hong Kong, some people look across the border to Guangdong province in mainland China for space. But permanent burial plots there have jumped in price tenfold over the past decade to about 200,000 yuan (£23,000). Similarly, a niche space for storing ashes can reach 100,000 yuan. For a permanent ground burial plot in Macau – an hour’s ferry journey from Hong Kong – a plot can fetch HK$1m. The government is working to increase the supply of public niches, with construction on three projects, providing a total of 208,000 spaces, due to be completed this year. Niches will be allocated randomly through computer balloting – a system many feels is unfair. In the long run, though, the city says reliance on the provision of new niches is not sustainable. “Soon the only option will be a green burial or storing ashes at home,” says Kwok. “People will no longer have a choice. The reality is that we’re running out of space in Hong Kong, even for the dead.”
Credit: Matthew Keegan for The Guardian, 23 April 2019.