A problem that won't be buried
After not taking the mushrooming of private columbariums seriously until last year, the government must do its best to strike a sensitive balance as it tries to restore order by regulating them. It cannot please everyone. Lawmakers, for example, complain that a proposed system for licensing the columbariums leaves a lot of loopholes for illegal operators. It is understandable if officials have erred on the side of pragmatism and flexibility. There is a growing shortage of urn niches, with about 12,000 deceased still on the waiting list for burial places for their ashes. The lack of public burial places means many families have to wait months or even years to lay their loved ones to rest. Some private columbariums have been unlicensed for many years. But given the Chinese tradition of letting ancestors rest in peace, health minister York Chow Yat-ngok is right to say that upsetting existing arrangements is not to be contemplated lightly.
Proposals for a private columbarium ordinance to be put to a public consultation include five-year, renewable permits, fines and imprisonment for selling urns without a licence or exemption and operators in breach of land and planning rules being given 18 months to comply with them. Exemptions will include columbariums within cemeteries run by religious bodies and - in line with Chow's sentiments - those that have existed for a long time. He did not rule out the licensing body exercising discretion to allow them to continue operating without meeting all legal requirements.
Since officials tried a 'name and shame' approach last year by identifying 65 illegal or dubious operations, only 10 had filed retrospective land-use or planning approval applications by the end of September. There is therefore no alternative to a licensing regime. But it is not the long-term answer. The fundamental problem is a dearth of burial places. While it remains, so will the temptation to undertake lucrative illegal enterprises, with some operators asking HK$200,000 and more for a niche.
Columbariums are not popular neighbours because they are identified with nuisance factors such as traffic congestion and the burning of offerings, which can create fire hazards. Sadly, as a result, the government has made little headway with efforts to enlist community support for building more public columbariums in each of the 18 districts. It must redouble its efforts to persuade people that the 'not in my backyard' syndrome can only prevail at the cost of a cherished tradition.
At the same time, it should try to build on the modest but growing acceptance of the alternative of scattering ashes to help ease the demand for columbariums.