Time limit proposed to help increase supply
A time limit and management fee system could be introduced for ownership of new public niches under a plan to increase supply.
To encourage people who do not want to permanently keep niches, health officials are also proposing an ex-gratia allowance as an incentive to promote their return.
These measures, which secretary for food and health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok admitted were controversial, are being put forward for a three-month consultation along with a package of measures to boost niche supply and regulate the private columbarium business.
'We have talked to officials in charge of columbariums in Singapore and Tokyo and we were told that about 70 to 80 per cent of the niches are unattended after three to four decades,' Chow said.
Health officials said some countries had a time limit, such as 20 years, for urn storage in public niches and families had to seek renewal on a regular basis when the limit expires. Failing to renew means the niches would be vacated.
Apart from a time limit, relatives might also face an annual management fee on top of the existing lump sum.
If the management fee is not paid for a number of years and the relatives cannot be contacted, the niches will be vacated and the urns moved to a communal repository, or the ashes could be scattered in gardens of remembrance.
Officials said it was too early to say how the fee levels should be set but overseas and mainland experience indicated that they were effective in reallocating niches.
St James Settlement social worker Gary Sham Chi-wing said the measures might not be welcomed by elderly people who have no children.
'For some elderly people, their biggest wish is to have their ashes safely kept in a place without the need of further relocation. If they are to be removed anyway, it means they have no choice but scattering their ashes in the first place.'
Sham said the proposed management fee might also become a financial burden for elderly people who are already living on dole.
He also said a financial incentive to encourage people to vacate niches might trigger disputes among family members over whether they should do so.