Hongkongers take new view of old certainty - death

Attitudes towards death changing as what was once taboo becomes subject of education and conversation, an HKU survey shows

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 June, 2014, 3:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 June, 2014, 11:20am

Hongkongers' attitudes towards death have gradually changed in the past seven years, with 10 per cent fewer believing that talking about death to a dying person will hasten their demise, a survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong has found.

About 38 per cent of respondents thought recently bereaved families should be socially inactive - a 6.8 per cent drop compared with 2007.

Dying without being survived by a son was not a disgrace for 93.5 per cent of those surveyed, compared to 13.5 per cent agreeing with that sentiment in 2007.

There was also less of a belief that seeing coffins or dead bodies would bring bad luck, with 3.5 per cent fewer agreeing.

"Our population is ageing and many people keep pets now, which leads to people having more experience of bereavement as elderly family members and pets always pass away before we do," said Professor Christine Fang Meng-seng, of the university's faculty of social sciences.

"There are more discussions about death in the media, too."

The survey, conducted between February and April after seminars on death held by the university, polled 464 adults - with 376 of them aged 59 or younger. A similar survey was conducted in 2007, when 465 adults were polled.

Fear of death and beliefs about avoiding death affected adults under 60 more than those over 60.

In 2007, adults under 60 scored 4.47 out of seven for fear of death, while people aged 60 or above scored 2.78. This time, adults under 60 scored 3.42 and those over 60 scored 2.68.

For beliefs about avoiding death, adults under 60 scored 4.23 in 2007, while those over 60 scored 3.1. This year, those figures were 2.2 and 1.71 respectively.

The poll also found that Hongkongers were more practically prepared to face death compared to seven years ago, with 70.4 per cent of respondents saying they had purchased life insurance - up from only 36.6 per cent in the previous survey.

But only 2.9 per cent of them said they had arranged a columbarium for their death, compared to 5.1 per cent in 2007.

"People may now be more open-minded to alternative ways of burial, such as burial at sea or at gardens of remembrances," said Dr Andy Ho Hau-yan, research assistant professor at the university's Sau Po Centre on Ageing.

Hongkongers are also more open to donating organs after passing away, with 43 per cent of them saying they had made arrangements for that.

In 2007, only 11.2 per cent of the respondents said they had done so.

Ho said the increase was "encouraging" and that education about death, such as that done by the university, was effective.

"Everyone has to face death eventually and education about death should start early, to let people know what it will be like and how to prepare for it and react when it comes," he said.

Professor Cecilia Chan Lai-wan, head of the department of social work at the university, said education about death should be part of the city's curriculum.

The university will host the 10th international conference on grief and bereavement in contemporary society from Wednesday to Saturday.

The university is also launching the first-ever death cafe in Hong Kong, where people can gather to discuss death over tea and coffee.

It will be held on Saturday afternoon at its centennial campus.