The inadequate supply of last resting places is a problem that has long been overlooked. Families who cannot afford private columbariums often have to wait for years to lay their loved ones to rest. The situation for the well-to-do is not satisfactory either. The lack of proper monitoring means many private premises used for the purpose are indeed illegal and eventually risk a crackdown by the government.
The issue has not been put on the public agenda until recent years. The 18 districts have each been told to share the responsibility by building facilities to ease the severe shortage. Regrettably, the not-in-my-backyard mindset still prevails, and many of the projects remain on the drawing board pending agreement with the district councils.
There is finally some good news. The application process for more than 10,000 niches opened on Monday following the completion of a HK$629.5 million columbarium in Fanling. With a capacity of 43,710 niches, the 3.6-hectare complex should be able to provide some short-term relief.
Sadly, the new site will be far from sufficient to meet long-term needs. With a death rate of 41,000 people a year, the shortage over the past few years has already created a backlog of 100,000, according to funeral operators. Families are often forced to put loved ones' ashes in a bag and leave it in funeral homes for years until a niche has been allotted.
The acute shortage of space for the living and the dead means building columbariums cannot be a sustainable solution. It is, perhaps, time to consider a fundamental change in our approach to laying our loved ones to rest. Increasingly, scattering ashes at sea or in designated gardens has become an acceptable alternative. More than 600 families opted for the sea last year, compared with just a few dozens years ago. Others have scattered ashes in one of the eight public Gardens of Remembrance. Both options are free of charge. Changes in practice and culture take time, but the problem will not be buried unless we act now.