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Ageing society

Space-starved Hong Kong could get its first virtual cemetery for green burials

Father and son entrepreneurs set up high-rise columbarium, but insist that displays of remembrance must be done online to encourage green burial

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 July, 2017, 4:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 July, 2017, 10:15pm

Imagine remembering your loved ones in a virtual cemetery that displays a digitalised version of your favourite location, while in real life, their ashes are stored in a high-rise columbarium that bans most tribute rituals.

In virtual reality, you can stroll around, gaze at the views and walk up to the grave to pay respects, something you will find hard to do in land-starved Hong Kong.

This is what 80-year-old industrialist and inventor Yuen Se-kit and his son Anthony Yuen Sze-ming want to achieve.

By providing a physical columbarium but requiring the burning of incense and offerings to be done online, the pair hope to prepare largely conservative residents for the concept of green burial, where people return the ashes of their loved ones to the environment.

“Green burial will be the eventual future for the city,” Anthony Yuen says. “When we are facing limited land resources for the living, it will be impossible to keep developing land for the dead.”

The online platform has already prompted 300 families to register since its launch in December last year.

“It took decades for cremation to be used by over 90 per cent of Hong Kong people. We reckon it will take time for [green burial] to catch on and we hope our services can become a transitional step,” Yuen said.

As the city continues to age, the government has projected the number of deaths will double from 46,900 last year to 97,600 by 2064.

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The number of people aged 65 or over is forecast to increase from 15 per cent of the population in 2015 to 36 per cent by 2064.

The share of people being cremated has increased from 35 per cent in 1975 to 93 per cent last year, while the share of green burials accounted for 9 per cent in 2015.

The father-son pair’s company, Dalon International Holdings, submitted an application to the Town Planning Board this month to change the use of its property, Yeh Lam Kwok Group Building in Tsuen Wan, from industrial to columbarium use to provide 22,792 niches.

Yuen says the columbarium will ban incense or the burning of offerings to reduce pollution. It will also close during the Ching Ming and Chung Yeung festivals – the two major times when people visit graves – to prevent traffic jams in the area.

Instead, he says, the company encourages clients to use an online worshipping platform, where users can place memorial photos of their loved ones against different religious backdrops, choose from a range of virtual offerings and even burn them with an accompanying audio effect.

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The building will also provide multimedia rooms – open to a maximum of 120 people a day by appointment – for family members to offer virtual tributes.

Yuen says the company is working on a function to create virtual graves in locations picked by customers. He says the company is looking to introduce the function next year.

But the concept is not catching on among all. Ken Li, a 40-year-old interior decorator, says he accepts green burial but not online worshipping.

“It’s pointless,” Li says. “You might as well put the photo at home and offer real things. Young people may like it but our generation wants something real.”

Li’s co-worker, who refused to give his name, agrees.

“Visiting the dead is one of the rare chances for family members to get together,” he says. “If you do it online, you lose these remaining chances. And it’s not sincere at all.”

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But Albert Ho, a 24-year-old master’s degree student, says he will not mind trying the service.

“I guess it’s similar to looking at photos [of the deceased] on Facebook, which I sometimes do,” he says.

Dr Amy Chow Yin-man, a University of Hong Kong associate professor specialising in death education, says paying tribute online has been implemented for a while on the mainland. She says mainly young people use the service.

“The mainland is large and many young people working in far-flung areas find it difficult to return to their hometown to pay tribute,” Chow says. “But in Hong Kong, most people still visit the deceased physically, especially the older generations, because they take these rituals very seriously.”

She says more education and choices are needed for people to gradually accept alternative burial and commemorative methods.

Meanwhile Town Planning Board member Patrick Lau Hing-tat, who declines to comment on specific cases, says the board would consider environmental and traffic impacts, neighbourhood concerns and the involved buildings’ compatibility with the surrounding land use when handling similar applications.