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A Hong Kong crematorium – definition of the fast farewell

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 6:37pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 6:38pm

Cape Collinson in Chai Wan is a strange place. I’m not sure what a Hong Kong crematorium is supposed to look like, but the name suggests dignified landscaped gardens of remembrance  overlooking the ocean, perhaps. The reality is hoardings and workers all wearing blue SARS facemasks.

Not a good sign. Add renovations and knots of people, gathering into their respective groups with, hopefully, the right coffin and you have the scene. This part happens outside, with coffins on trolleys. I didn’t look, but I’m sure there was a bar code or at least a label to make sure the right family got the right box.  

 

Quick in and out

The formal part of matches and dispatches is a perfunctory business in Hong Kong. You hear of marriages and crematorium ceremonies spaced 15 minutes apart, with the next customers entering as the previous ones leave.

That was pretty much the case. The room at the spruced-up Cape Collinson into which we were ushered was beige, bare and totally utilitarian. Stripped of any vestige of religious fixtures, it was a blank canvas, a space upon which you could impose the paraphernalia or your particular brand of beliefs. Or lack of them. It was utterly soul less. In the centre was an “altar” which could double for a buffet display in a no-frills hotel, while to the side was a line of rollers leading to a small curtain in the wall. This resembles an airport security check, the one where you put liquids in small plastic bags as the tray rolls along and disappears behind a flapping rubber curtain.
 

Bare basics

It’s all very dignified, just stripped bare of anything spiritual. The coffin is efficiently transferred from trolley to rollers. All that’s missing is a uniformed lady saying please remove your laptop and put it in the tray.  

At the appointed minute the service, such as it was began. Unfortunately so did several others in adjacent rooms, in clashing religions. Ours was low-key Christian, no bells, smells or singing, but next door had bagpipes and elsewhere women were keening and singing. It was like an old fashioned multiplex cinema with thin walls where you can hear three soundtracks at once. The distracting cacophony made it hard to concentrate, let alone focus on our departed friend.

After precisely 12 minutes of prayers and a reading, our clergyman pressed a discreet button in the wall. The rollers started to roll and the coffin glided towards the curtain. I’d been warned that at this point, ribald comments from the mortuary workers below can often drift up. In very colloquial Cantonese. Luckily this didn’t happen, but the coffin just disappeared from view. There were no flames, as you expect in England. The cremation process takes hours, I was told, and they have such a backlog it would probably not be done until much later.

We trooped out into the wintry sunshine once more, as the next lot went in. There seemed little point in hanging around to chat, as the next group in the production line was already assembled and waiting their turn. The deed was done. It had started at 11am; it was now 11.14, so we just went back to work. It didn’t seem like we’d been to a funeral at all. I felt rather cheated.

Anna.fenton@scmp.com