Hongkongers ‘may turn to mainland’ for columbarium niches amid tighter grip on private operators

Under new bill, up to 300,000 urns could be displaced while prices of private slots may rise by over 30 per cent in city

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 May, 2017, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 May, 2017, 9:46pm

More Hongkongers could be prompted to look across the border when seeking a final resting place for the ashes of their loved ones, industry insiders have warned after lawmakers approved a bill to regulate the city’s columbariums on Thursday.

Under the Private Columbaria Ordinance, which comes into effect on June 30, all of the city’s private columbarium operators must be licensed by March 2018 after a nine-month grace period.

Columbariums that fail to do so will need to return stored ashes to relatives or partners of the deceased – a move that is set to increase the burden on the city’s residents, who are already grappling with skyrocketing housing and columbarium niche prices due to the scarcity of land.

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Funeral Business Association life chairman Ng Yiu-tong said with only about half of current private operators deemed qualified under the new bill, about 300,000 urns could be displaced.

Ng also said he expected the prices of private niches to rise by more than 30 per cent after the licences are issued. “After all the effort operators put into obtaining the licences, of course they need to increase prices.”

“Hongkongers have to save up on food and clothes in order to buy a niche. This is not healthy,” he warned.

Peter Lo, a Hong Kong-based sales representative for a cemetery in Guangdong province, said that the trend might drive many Hongkongers to turn to mainland China for the final resting places for loved ones.

“In the past I received about 10 inquiries a day about purchasing niches on the mainland. These days I get more than 30 per day,” Lo said.

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On Friday, Lo’s company put up a new poster that says “not affected by the new policy” at its shop in Hung Hom.

He added that the surge in interest regarding mainland niches is due largely to the new bill, as Hong Kong residents might have to wait several years for a public lot provided by the government, if they cannot afford a pricey slot by privately owned columbariums.

“People are also worried that they need to take the ashes out if the private columbariums fail to get a licence,” Lo said.

He estimated the price of niches in Hong Kong to rise by more than 30 per cent.

While it can cost about HK$200,000 on average to purchase a niche in Hong Kong, Lo said it only took thousands of Hong Kong dollars for a similar slot on the mainland.

According to Lo, about 40 per cent of deceased Hong Kong residents per year could have their ashes located on the mainland after the new bill takes effect.

Data from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department show that the wait for a niche slot provided by the government is about 54 months on average. In extreme cases, the duration could be as long as six years – even more than the average waiting time for public housing.

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Funeral service providers have doubled up as temporary storage for clients, Ng said.

However, many of these funeral service providers have run out of space and opted to put the urns in plastic boxes, he added.

“Ashes are not ordinary goods,” Ng said. “Their storage has to come with good standard and service, so that loved ones in mourning can be consoled.”

Pius Yum Kwok-tung from the Alliance for the Concern over Columbarium Policy said he was worried that some of the funeral service providers would become “ash hotels”, which would still not solve the long-term problem of niche shortage.

“We hope the method of regulating property sales will also be applied to columbarium sales,” Yum said. “The money involved in niche transaction is not a small number. Consumers should be informed whether they are buying from a qualified person.”

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The Hong Kong Consumer Council has already warned of the risks of being tricked into buying unauthorised niches before the effective date of the bill.

“Some columbarium providers or agents might use promotion slogans such as ‘licence assured’ and ‘fully refundable’ to lure customers,” the council said in a statement to the Post. It suggested that consumers educate themselves before committing to a purchase.

Meanwhile, the government said it would try to promote “green burials” – such as scattering ashes at sea – during the nine-month “vacuum period” under which no new niche can be sold, according to the bill.

Sophia Chan Siu-chee, Undersecretary for Food and Health, said the government would spare no effort in promoting such means.

She added that there were over 4,000 cases where ashes were scattered at sea and in the city’s gardens of remembrance in 2015, accounting for 8.7 per cent of total deaths, a significant increase from 4.6 per cent in 2010.