Hong Kong lawmakers pass columbarium bill despite dispute over gay rights

Pan-democrats and officials argue over whether same-sex partners should have priority over relatives when claiming loved one’s ashes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 May, 2017, 10:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 May, 2017, 12:43pm

Hong Kong lawmakers on Thursday approved a long-delayed bill to regulate private columbariums after the health minister inserted a clause to allow partners in live-in relationships – including same-sex unions – to claim the ashes of their loved ones stored in niches.

The legislation was approved by a vote of 50-1, with localist Cheng Chung-tai being the only lawmaker who voted against the bill.

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That clears the way for the Private Columbaria Ordinance to come into effect on June 30, followed by a nine-month grace period for operators to get ready for government monitoring.

The Food and Health Bureau first promised to consider a licensing regime in 2010, after lawmakers blamed the government for allowing a booming, unregulated private market making money off people desperate to store the ashes of their loved ones.

The government will set up a licensing board by December, and columbarium operators must apply for a permit or waiver from January to March next year.

If a columbarium fails to be officially licensed or exempted from applying for one by March 2018, it might need to return the ashes it is storing to the relatives or partners of the deceased. Otherwise, the operator could face a fine of up to HK$5 million and seven years in jail.

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The government confirmed that there are currently 30 private columbariums operating according to land lease requirements, while the operation of 123 other known operators are in question. It remains unclear how many of them will be granted a licence or waiver under the new law.

Funeral Business Association life chairman Ng Yiu-tong estimated that up to 300,000 urns in unauthorised private columbariums could be displaced after the grace period.

“If half [of the 123 columbariums] fail to meet the requirement, it could affect at least tens of thousands of niches,” he said.

Alliance for Concern over Columbarium Policy co-convenorLeung Chi-shing welcomed the passage of the bill.

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During the debate in Legco, which started on Wednesday, lawmakers focused on the pan-democrats’ call for same-sex partners to enjoy the same rights as relatives when it came to claiming a loved one’s ashes.

Last year, the pan-democratic camp opposed a similar bill, first tabled in June 2014, as it allowed only relatives to claim a deceased person’s remains.

Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man confirmed on Wednesday that the revised bill would allow a person who had been living with the deceased in the same household for at least two years to make such claims as well. But relatives would still be given priority, he added.

The city’s only openly gay lawmaker, Raymond Chan Chi-chuen of People Power, argued that the two-year live-in requirement should be reduced by half, and relatives should not be given priority.

The pan-democrats’ amendments were either rejected or voted down before the bill was passed.