PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2006, 12:00am

IF THE COST of living is high in Hong Kong, arrangements for the afterlife don't come cheap either. But few inquire about prices for funeral services when the subject is traditionally taboo, and costs can come as a shock to bereaved families, as Ada Wai Kam-san discovered after her father-in-law passed away last month.

'We had no idea how much a funeral costs, and didn't know that it was so expensive,' says the 39-year-old. It cost the family $35,000 to hold a simple Taoist ritual in a funeral home and have a hearse convey the body to a crematorium. Securing urn space for ashes in a temple columbarium will easily set them back by another $40,000. For a superior niche, the family could spend $200,000.

It's difficult to quantify the amount spent on interments each year. But with the severe shortage of land, the costs are steep, and funerals of the rich easily run to $3 million. Undertakers don't usually reveal their cost structures and funeral rites are often customised, so prices can vary considerably. Among the key factors that affect costs are the type of coffin, and where the funeral service is conducted. It's free in hospital funeral rooms and in public mortuaries, but costs tens of thousands of dollars in a private funeral hall. The size of the hall, choice of decorations, floral wreaths, and paper offerings also affect expenses.

The nature of the funeral director is crucial. The city's seven funeral homes generally charge more than the smaller coffin shops, according to Ng Yiu-tong, who heads the industry association.

His Hunghom operation charges $15,000 for a basic funeral service, whether Taoist or Christian. That covers everything from clothes and makeup for the dead to mourning robes for the family and transportation. For $30,000, you can get up to six Taoist monks for chants and other rituals, and elaborate paper offerings, including maids and gold ingots.

The scarcity of land means burial plots and urn places are expensive. A funeral package that includes a burial plot will cost as much as $70,000. And that's excluding the headstone.

Interment in government cemeteries is limited to six years, with a basic burial plot (2.2 square metres) costing $3,190. At the end of the period, exhumation and cremation of the bones are mandatory.

At private burial facilities, plot prices vary with the length of time of occupation. The Chinese Permanent Cemeteries, for example, charge $21,600 for a 10-year non-renewable lease. A permanent plot, however, will cost $280,800. Given the space restrictions, 88 per cent of families opt for cremation. Even then, they usually face a 15-day wait because there are too few crematoriums to meet demand. The only government columbarium with space available now is in Kwai Chung, where the cost is $3,295 and the waiting time four to five months.

Those who prefer to skip the queue can look for a niche in a temple, but these can be pricey. Some temples charge more than $100,000 for a choice position, says Josephine Lee Yuk-chi of the St James' Settlement charity, which helps the single elderly plan for their funerals.

Wai is dismayed by the steep prices as she scours the internet for a suitable place for her father-in-law's ashes.

'An eye-level urn niche in a Sha Tin temple costs $200,000. We can't afford it,' she says. 'There are spots for $40,000, but these are either very high up near the ceiling or at the foot at corners.'

If the family can't find a decent spot at an affordable price, Wai says they'll have to wait until the end of the year for a place in a government-run columbarium.

Many Hong Kong families have turned to more spacious mainland facilities such as Baoenfudi Cemetery in Shenzhen. Set up by a Hong Kong businessman in 1998, the burial ground, a 30-minute drive from Lo Wu, features pagodas and a large statue of the Goddess of Mercy.

'You don't feel like it's a graveyard,' says sales executive Min Wu. 'We've planted a lot of flowers, it's landscaped, and all the plots look on to a manmade lake.' The layout at Baoenfudi is designed to tap the desire for good fung shui. All its $50,000 plots accommodate four urns and have good fung shui, Min says.

Sheung Wan funeral director Lok Kar-keung also helps families look for suitable plots in Guangdong and arrange documentation for the burial. Clients can be choosy, he says.

'One man [slept] in the coffin to [find] out if it was comfortable for his deceased father,' Lok says.

Others prefer to take it easy. Many people choose a simple memorial service, sometimes accompanied by a video of the deceased. Lok has recently introduced an American-style service, in which funeral directors play the deceased's favourite music and gather relatives and friends to talk about their late loved one.

Lok, who often travels to the mainland, Canada, Malaysia and Taiwan to check on funeral trends, isn't sure if Hong Kong is the most expensive place to die, but he's certain that local cemeteries and columbariums lag in quality.

Facilities in Malaysia and Taiwan tend to feature more pleasant surroundings, with landscaped grounds and attractive decor. 'A columbarium in Taiwan can be set up like a hotel, with beautiful sofas and crystal chandeliers,' says Lok's daughter, Leslie Lok Man-yee, 30.

But choices are limited in Hong Kong. Rebecca So Sau-ling says that when she looked for a permanent resting place for her deceased mother, she was put off by the back-to-back layout at the cemetery in Chai Wan.

'It's so crowded, and has no view at all,' So says. Another spot, in Tseung Kwan O cemetery, was ruled out because it was next to a busy, dusty road.

Instead, So paid $29,600 for a 10-year plot in Tseung Kwan O. Although there's no landscaping, it's satisfactory, she says. 'It's high up on the mountain and has a view of Lei Yue Mun,' she says. So and her siblings paid $170,000 for their mother's funeral and burial, including $50,000 for the headstone and $90,000 for funeral rites by six Taoist monks.

The impoverished elderly can turn to the government for a $10,310 funeral subsidy. Under a deal St James' Settlement has negotiated with funeral directors, the sum will cover a casket, funeral clothing, paper offerings and an urn place, but not a service in a funeral hall. In contrast, deceased tycoons and celebrities are often dispatched in an extravaganza, usually in the Hong Kong Funeral Home.

'It's common for them to spend a few million for their funeral,' Lok says.

The floral decorations alone for singer Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing's hearse cost $100,000. But Hong Kong people are losing the custom of showering tributes on the dead. People are getting meaner with funeral arrangements, says Ng.

'They bargain a lot now.'