Action needed now on funeral services

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 March, 2012, 12:00am

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Money-minded Hongkongers will not miss any opportunity to make a profit. Services for the dead are no exception. From funeral rituals to burial places, the industry makes every effort to squeeze money out of this final journey. The idea that it will be the last occasion to spend usually prompts many to loosen the purse strings willingly, though not always wisely.

There is nothing wrong with service providers making money in a free market. After all, there is always business when there is demand. But when flaws in government policies contribute to a heavily distorted market, there is room for review. Recently, the government awarded its only public funeral parlour in Hung Hom to a commercial operator with a HK$270 million bid, nearly three times the previous one. While the operation won't be ready until May, others in the industry have already raised the rents of funeral halls by as much as a third.

The knock-on effect is regrettable. There is reason to believe that the sudden increases in rents by other operators were fuelled by pure greed rather than market forces at this stage. While the new operator is expected to charge higher prices later to recover business costs, competitors, instead of raising rates, could get more business by offering services at more competitive prices.

But, more importantly, questions have to be asked whether it is right for the government to opt for the highest bid in light of the unique nature of funeral services. A chronic shortage of columbariums has long been a cause for public concern. With an annual death toll of about 40,000, the need for more affordable funeral services and burial places is self-evident.

Better strategies are needed to address the problem. A government consultation on ways to regulate unauthorised burial sites will end later this month. It is to be hoped that better solutions can be found to address the problem.