Cardboard coffins a hard sell where tradition dies hard

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 December, 2010, 12:00am

They can be cheaper than the wooden variety, burn more quickly thus causing less pollution, and are slowly gaining acceptance.

But funeral operators say there is still a long way to go before so-called eco-coffins made from recycled cardboard become the mainstream choice in the city.

Despite statistics showing a 16-fold increase in their use since they were introduced for government use in 2007, they still figure in just 2.2 per cent of cremations, and most have been used by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to dispose of unclaimed bodies.

The coffins were first made available to the public in March 2008.

Operators say they are still unpopular with the older generation.

Wan Lin-yuk of Fortune Services, which imports the coffins, said people still held the traditional Chinese belief that the dead deserved a 'respectful funeral'.

'They still think using paper is disrespectful. Although eco-coffins look like wood on the outside, they just feel different,' she said.

All 50 such coffins used in 2007 were employed by the department to cremate unclaimed bodies. But of 837 used by October this year, 362 were chosen by families instead of wooden coffins.

That was just over double the 176 used by families in 2008. The department used 442 that year.

Of the 40,000 people who die each year, 90 per cent are cremated and the rest buried. No eco-coffin has yet been used for a burial.

Cardboard coffins burn in less than two hours compared with almost three for a wooden coffin.

But the prices charged for the cardboard version may also be inhibiting their acceptance.

While the popular mainland auction site sells them for 100 to 200 yuan (HK$116 to HK233), in Hong Kong they are often marked up to more than HK$1,000. That is not much different to the cost of the cheapest wooden coffins.

Wan said the high price and low demand formed a vicious cycle.

'When the price is similar to wooden coffins, people have no motivation to try new things. But when there is no demand, factories will not produce them on a large scale so the price cannot be lowered.'

She said eco-coffins could become popular in a few decades, since the younger generation was more open-minded.

Joyce Mak Man-mei, a social worker at the non-governmental organisation Everbright Funeral Service, which specialises in green funerals, said there was still a long way to go before eco-coffins became the mainstream choice.

'Our customers are already more environmentally conscious. But they still find it hard to convince families and relatives to choose eco-coffins,' she said.

Eco-coffins are more widely used in Japan and Europe. Some European companies offer creatively customised cardboard coffins, with patterns of flags, chocolates, wine bottles, guitars or even slot machines printed on them.

In an attempt to promote the use of eco-coffins, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department required all licensed funeral undertakers to provide them as an option from March 2008.

Miniature eco-coffins are also on display at the department's cemeteries, crematorium offices and the Health Education Resource and Exhibition Centre in Kowloon Park. A department spokeswoman said the displays gave the public more information about the materials used to produce such coffins.