'Alternative' ash burials start to gain ground

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2012, 12:00am


Hongkongers are increasingly opting for their ashes to be scattered in a 'garden of remembrance' as opposed to costlier, traditional burial arrangements such as the use of niches, says a funeral services firm.

The growing acceptance of the practice comes after the opening of a memorial garden in Tseung Kwan O in December and which provides pools of varying sizes where ashes can be scattered free of charge.

Sham Chi-wing, a social worker at St James' Settlement funeral services, sees it as a sign that the elderly are getting more open-minded.

The environmentally friendly service may help alleviate the shortage of urn spaces in columbariums. About 90 per cent of the 42,000 people who die every year choose to be cremated, while 12,000 applicants are on the waiting list for niches.

The 1,030 square metre Tseung Kwan O facility, run by the board that manages the Junk Bay Chinese Permanent Cemeteries, has 20 pools in which ashes can be scattered in ceremonies. The pools are a metaphor for 'the flow of eternity', according Lo Mei-wah, executive director of the board of management of the Chinese Permanent Cemeteries.

Mourners could also pay HK$1,000 or more to install a memorial plaque at any of 2,961 spots in the memorial garden, Lo said.

Acceptance of the practice was growing, says Sham. 'Our survey in 2009 showed [that] only 25 per cent of respondents were willing to be cremated ... Yet among the 386 cases I've handled in the past two years, 152 were [returned to the earth in] a garden of remembrance, making up 40 per cent,' the social worker said.

He said services like that offered by St James' Settlement provided alternatives to niches and burial plots, for which applicants have to wait two to three years.

Leung Wing-hong, 87, said he liked the Tseung Kwan O site. 'I just want my burial to be simple and inexpensive. We don't care about the so-called traditions any more. We're so old after all.'

Hung Tak-sum, an 80-year-old who lives alone as his only daughter is overseas, agreed. 'There won't be a lot of people visiting you after your death,' he said. 'I've visited the burial site of my grandfather only [twice]. So what's the point of occupying so much space?'

Hung said he was already 'beyond life', or past caring about funereal norms, and simply wanted to return to nature after death.