Temple faces complaints over lottery for urn niches

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 September, 2009, 12:00am

More than 100 people will complain to a Taoist temple in Tuen Mun over the way it allocates niches to store the ashes of loved ones after the temple abruptly changed the arrangement from first-come-first-served to a lottery.

This follows scuffles and clashes that broke out outside the temple on Tuesday when the change was announced.

At one point on Tuesday up to 1,000 were queued outside the Ching Chung Sian Yuan after the temple said it would allocate one or two niches - depending on type - in its columbarium to the first 140 in the queue each day until Saturday.

But most of the crowd - many of whom were waiting in the hope of being at the head of the queue the following day - left after the temple said it would hold a lottery instead. 'We changed the arrangement after we received complaints from queuers that they felt unwell because of the heat,' a temple staff member said yesterday.

Under the new arrangement each person in the queue is given a form and required to fill in name, identity card number, telephone number and address. The temple will collect these forms until 5pm on Saturday and the draw will be held on September 15, witnessed by Home Affairs Bureau officials.

Frankie Chung Ka-kit, who queued to buy two niches, said the temple staff were avoiding them. 'The temple should have talked with us instead of hiding. It is very irresponsible,' he said.

Chung said about 100 signatures had been collected and they planned to submit a complaint to the temple.

Chung and other complainants will meet Tuen Mun district councillor Chan Man-wah today to decide on further action.

Police were called in on Tuesday as people - some of whom had queued since 4am - clashed with staff over the change.

One man tried to grab application forms from a temple officer, while others shouted and booed at staff. While most left afterwards, some who were in the queue on Tuesday were still waiting yesterday.

A 69-year-old woman at the head of the queue said she had been waiting for more than 30 hours, and demanded that the temple return to the original arrangement. 'It's unacceptable and unfair,' she said. 'It's like hardworking students getting 100 marks in an exam and lazy students also getting a full mark by luck.'

Under the original arrangement, she would have been able to secure a niche for herself but now she could only try her luck, she said.

Susan Man Suet-hing had also queued for more than 30 hours for a niche for her mother's ashes which have been in a funeral home for 11 months. 'I am disappointed. I came so early because I wanted to secure a permanent place for my mum. Now my efforts are fruitless.'

Funeral Business Association chairman Lau Chi-kong said the incident was due to the lack of niches at public columbariums.

'If the government does not build any new niches, such chaos will only occur time and time again. The government should do something to remedy the situation and should do it as soon as possible,' Lau said.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said that, at the end of July, 10,665 families were waiting for niches at public columbariums of which only 90 were available. The waiting time was seven to 56 months depending on location.

Society for Community Organisation campaign organiser Ng Wai-tung said many low-income families were forced to keep their ancestors' ashes at home.

'Most of them cannot afford to buy private niches. The price is simply unattainable for them. While waiting for public niches, they can only place the ashes at funeral homes or their own homes for the time being,' Ng said.

The recent economic downturn had forced many poor families to cut spending on funerals, Ng said.

'Some people have sent the bodies for cremation without going to a funeral home or having any ritual. And then they just wait for a public niche,' he said.

The Social Welfare Department said welfare recipients were entitled to HK$11,140 for funeral expenses.