No room left for our dead

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 September, 2010, 12:00am

The government is planning to draft laws to govern private columbariums amid mounting calls. But operators can enjoy a few more years of business free from the worry of regulations because it will take several years for a licensing system to come into force.

The licensing scheme will be part of a new columbarium policy to increase public niche supply by providing land to meet demand. Twelve sites in seven districts have been shortlisted to build public columbariums.

But licensing laws will take years to complete because it involves complicated legal issues.

At the centre of the problem is the definition of unauthorised columbarium development. There is confusion over what constitutes human remains.

The Lands Department says ashes are human remains and therefore the old lease and land grant conditions do not allow columbarium development. But columbarium operators say the definition of human remains does not include ashes.

When a three-month public consultation ends this month, the Development Bureau is expected to issue two lists of private columbarium operators to help consumers identify trustworthy operators. The first will list operators who satisfy statutory planning requirements and land lease conditions and the other will detail those whose legality the bureau believes is in doubt.

Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok said in July the licensing system was complicated and it would take two to three years to work out details and amend the law. 'Legislation for the smoking ban also took three to four years to complete,' he said. 'While we don't want to drag things on for too long, it is also not healthy to rush things.'

Under the proposed licensing laws, existing operators could apply for a temporary licence for up to 30 months. During this period, they could upgrade themselves to meet licensing conditions.

That means that illegal operators will in theory have up to five to six years to carry on their business unless they are immediately held responsible for planning and land lease breaches.

At present, officials cannot do anything to stop operators from taking on new business, Chow said. But they will shut down those who fail to meet conditions under the system, he said.

As the population ages, demand for funeral services has risen. Cremation has become the most common means as cemetery places are scarce and expensive.

No new public niches will become available until 2012 when 41,000 will be created in Wo Hop Shek cemetery and 50,000 will be built by charity and religious groups. The number of cremations has increased from 7,300 in 1975 to 36,500 last year. Projections show that in the next 20 years there will be an annual average of 52,600 deaths, among which 49,200 will be cremations.

Eight public columbariums now provide about 167,000 niches, which have all been allotted. One standard niche can store two urns. A further 300 re-used public niches are available every year for people on a waiting list, but the waiting period is often two years.

Of the 328,000 niches at 14 private columbariums, only about 35,000 are free. Plans to build 240,000 new niches in the past five years in various districts have been shelved due to opposition by nearby residents.

The shortage has led to an increase in illegal facilities on private property, triggering concerns about fire safety, land use and consumer protection.

Columbariums not only store human ashes but are also places where relatives and friends regularly visit to hold religious rituals for their ancestors. The rituals often involve burning of paper offerings which generates black soot and other pollutants. Some illegal operators may not have proper air-cleaning facilities and fire equipment.

Illegal operators have also caused concern over consumer protection. In March, the Consumer Council reported that up to two-thirds of the 28 complaints it received last year against columbariums involved the legality of the premises. In the first quarter of this year, there have been five such complaints. In 2008, the council received only nine complaints against funeral services.