Co-ordination the key to solving niche problem

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 July, 2010, 12:00am

It can be hard finding an affordable place to live in Hong Kong; but that is nothing compared to the shortage of places for burial urns. There are just 190,000 existing or planned public urn niches to meet an expected demand of more than 490,000 over the next decade. The shortfall is so severe that the wait can be as much as four years.

Yet authorities do not seem in a hurry to address this issue. While speaking of the need for a licensing scheme, laws and plans for columbariums, they have also determined it will take time to get a system in place. Realistically, that could be at least three years, perhaps five or more. In the absence of a concerted government policy, people are concluding that the best option is to turn to private columbariums. But which ones are legal and which ones are not?

Even officials do not know which ones can be confidently turned to. The Development Bureau is compiling two lists of operators: one which meet planning requirements and land lease conditions, and the other whose legality is in doubt. But even choosing from the former is not a guarantee, as they may not meet the licensing terms eventually spelt out in the Food and Health Bureau's laws. While legislation is being shaped, operators charging HK$200,000 or more for a niche will be allowed to carry on business, legal or otherwise.

This clearly is not good enough. There will not be any new public niches until 2012. The government's encouraging of the scattering of ashes at sea or in gardens of remembrance has not caught on because of the preference for a shrine that can be visited. A 'not in my backyard' mentality has prevented the building of new columbariums. There is an urgent need to solve this problem. For families that have lost a loved one, waiting a few years is not really a viable option. Death is not a matter that should be treated thoughtlessly. Co-ordination by a senior official such as the chief secretary is imperative. In the case of illegal columbariums, he could step in to determine responsibility and ensure that action is taken. That would at least ease minds while new public sites are identified. It also sends a clear message to law drafters of the need for urgency.