Space at a premium even in death

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 April, 2007, 12:00am

Space shortage is a perennial problem in Hong Kong. Most people work hard all their lives so as to save enough money to pay for the small flats they live in. Ownership of one's accommodation apparently offers a strong sense of security and satisfaction in this city.

Likewise, most elderly people prefer a proper burial in a permanent grave where their family members can visit them, normally during the Ching Ming Festival in spring and the Chung Yeung Festival in autumn.

A permanent grave, however, is a luxury which few can afford. It now costs at least HK$240,000 and this is only the land price. Cheaper grave-sites are available across the border where prices often depend on their accessibility.

In view of the rising prosperity in the Pearl River Delta, burial sites near urban centres are increasingly difficult to come by.

Two or three decades ago some people became Christians on their death-beds, mainly with the intention of securing a cheap permanent burial site. Churches today can no longer offer such services.

Government-run cemeteries offer grave-sites to the public at more reasonable prices, normally about HK$40,000. But they are not permanent, and the remains have to be removed after 10 years.

An option is public columbaria - vaults with niches for urns containing cremated remains. In the past two or three decades, cremation has become more widely accepted mainly because of the cost factor as it is five times less expensive than a coffin burial.

Concern for the environment has given rise to an innovative product - paper coffins. Initial response from the elderly has not been very favourable.

To ease the burden on public cemeteries, the government has lifted a 22-year-old ban on the scattering of human ashes at sea. Previously, those wishing to scatter ashes at sea had to travel outside Hong Kong's territorial waters.

However, the idea has not been popular with Hong Kong people; a rough estimate is that of the 40,000 people who die annually in Hong Kong only 100 or 200 have their ashes scattered at sea.

Probably public education is needed to alter the traditional values of the elderly in Hong Kong. But the impact is doubtful.

On the mainland, top leaders, including the late premier Zhou Enlai , set the example by having their ashes scattered over mountains and rivers of the motherland instead of building mausoleums.

However, in the villages social security for those who had no means of livelihood included provisions for a decent burial in a permanent grave.

Maybe our government should try to acquire land across the border for public cemeteries, including the arrangement of transport services during the Ching Ming and Chung Yeung festivals.

This shortage of cemeteries reflects three important challenges for Hong Kong: an ageing population, land shortage and environmental protection. There has been no shortage of innovative ideas, but traditional values remain strong among elderly people.

At this stage, there seems to be no perfect solution. The government's action has not attracted an enthusiastic response, but there have been no objections either. Most people, if they can afford it, will still opt for a temporary grave-site in the public cemeteries. Cremation, however, has become widely accepted as few can afford the cost of a permanent grave-site.

Such practices as scattering human ashes at sea and using paper coffins will take more time to spread. More innovative ideas are expected to emerge.

The strength of traditional values shows that the family remains a strong institution, and the elderly still retain their respect.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong