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Then & now: grave consequences

With barely enough space for the living, Hong Kong has come to terms with cremation as a means of accommodating the dead, writes Jason Wordie

 

Now the most popular means of disposal of Hong Kong's dead, cremation has become so prevalent that it can take weeks after a death to even obtain a crematorium slot.

Cremation had become accepted in the West by the late 19th century. Advances in microbiology had established connections between ground-water contamination - whether from contact with raw sewage or infected corpses - and intermittent epidemics.

Matilda Sharp, the wife of prominent local businessman Granville Sharp, was the first European woman to be cremated in Hong Kong. In the course of her final illness, in 1893, she reiterated her wish to be incinerated after her death, and was subsequently cremated on a Pok Fu Lam hillside. Sharp's pyre could be clearly seen from the coastline, and a number of launches bearing mourners came to watch the proceedings. Until then, cremation had been a practice followed in Hong Kong only by locally domiciled Indians, who clothed their dead in a winding-cloth. By the time the firewood had burned down, the body was mostly consumed.

In Sharp's case, however, a European-style coffin was used, with mixed and rather macabre results. Newspaper reports describe how her pyre was constructed, with stacks of kerosene-impregnated firewood and several tar-barrels to assist the flames. After some time, "the lid and sides [of the coffin] fell away. The form of the body then became visible, with the flames playing about it, and combustion seemed to proceed slowly. Additional fuel was from time to time thrown onto the fire …"

The next day, Sharp's ashes were collected and later buried in a conventional grave at the Colonial Cemetery in Happy Valley, which is still in a good state of repair. Her husband was also cremated after his death, in England, in 1899, and, several months later, his ashes were buried with those of his wife.

Gradually the concept of cremation became popular, though traditional Chinese beliefs about maintaining a corpse intact took decades to dissipate. Construction of a public crematorium was recommended in 1899, but it took until 1914 for a Cremation Ordinance to be enacted. The first public crematorium in Hong Kong, at Kai Lung Wan (on the western side of the island), opened in 1933.

Older cultural habits died hard. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church prohibited cremation; the practice was seen as an open denial of Christian resurrection myths, as the body would be completely obliterated. Cremation was only permitted after 1963, when, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the church finally began to enter the modern world. From 1966, priests were allowed to officiate at funeral services that ended in a cremation. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church still officially prefers the traditional burial of human remains. In direct consequence, Hong Kong has sizeable, heavily overcrowded Catholic cemeteries, with several people sometimes buried in the same family plot.

As with most other aspects of modern life, cost, space and convenience became the principal deciding factors for most people. Columbarium niches are easier and cheaper to obtain - for the most part - than conventional burial plots. Six public crematoriums are now operated by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, which also manages public cemeteries.

 

 

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