Dying without a final resting place is a Chinese taboo. Yet that is the frustrating reality for thousands of Hong Kong families. The lack of public burial places means many have to wait for months or sometimes years to lay their loved ones to rest.
It also means lucrative opportunities for private columbariums, with some businesses charging up to HK$200,000 for a cubicle barely big enough for an urn. These commercial premises have helped ease the shortage, but many were built with little regard to the law and, even when challenged by the government, many are resisting regulation. One major niche operator took the government to court in a land-use dispute. The judge ruled that the Yuen Long site, enough for 69,000 urns, is clearly a columbarium even though the operator argued it is a shrine for worshipping. The ruling is a welcome one. It has given officials ammunition to get tough on illegal operators. At least two more legal challenges, involving land lease restrictions and definitions of human remains, are pending. Hopefully, the coming court decisions can help clear the way forward.
Unfortunately, the government's victory does little to help ease the severe shortage of burial places. The number of cremations has climbed from 32,215 in 2006 to 38,006 last year. Nearly 12,000 deceased are still on the waiting queue for a burial place.
The problems were not given serious attention until last year, when officials sought to sanction illegal sites with a name-and-shame approach. At least 65 were deemed illegal or dubious. A licensing regime has been suggested as an option, but officials have yet to say specifically how the sites could be made legitimate. This is a challenge that needs to be tackled with flexibility and common sense - it would be unrealistic, for instance, to remove tens of thousands of urns already placed in unauthorised sites.
The fundamental problem remains a dearth of burial places. Unless the shortage is eased, the temptation to operate illegal columbariums will remain. That is why the government should show strong political will and accord higher priority to the matter. Little progress has been made to solicit community support to build more columbariums in each of the 18 districts. Naturally, few districts are eager to have such facilities built nearby. But Hong Kong cannot afford such a 'not-in-my backyard' mentality. Every district has to contribute its share to resolving the problem.
Families should also be encouraged to go for alternative burial methods. More have opted for scattering the ashes of their loved ones, up from a mere 58 cases in 2006 to 1,171 last year. The city should promote this practice more vigorously to help ease the demand for columbariums in the long run.