Private columbariums built before 1990 will be exempt from the new licensing system proposed in a government bill that seeks to regulate the management of the final resting place for many Hongkongers.
Other facilities that do not comply with the law will have a six-year grace period, after which relatives may have to find new homes for their ancestors' ashes.
Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man said the 1990 cut-off date struck a balance between the need to regulate columbariums and the need to avoid disturbing ashes after many years.
"Some have suggested a strict requirement of banning as soon as possible all venues that breach regulations, but other members of the public reminded us that this may cause a large number of settled ashes to be disturbed," he said.
The bill, drafted after two rounds of public consultation over four years, responds to a rise in the number of private columbariums driven by the ageing population and a shortage of government provision. A worrying number of these new columbariums are suspected of breaching land leases and building rules.
A government source said there were 122 private columbariums offering about 280,000 niches. The source did not give a firm number of how many were in place before 1990, but suggested a figure of more than 30.
About 90 per cent of residents who die each year - some 40,000 - are cremated. About one in four of these end up in cemeteries operated by the government or the Board of Management of Chinese Permanent Cemeteries. The rest are housed in private columbariums or disposed of in other ways, with their ashes scattered at sea, for example.
The columbarium bill was approved by the Chief Executive in Council yesterday and will be tabled in the Legislative Council on Wednesday.
Under the bill, exemptions will apply only to those private columbariums that are more than 24 years old and had halted their intake by 8am yesterday. They must never sell or lease urn niches again.
Once the bill becomes law, other columbariums already in operation will be able to apply for an extension of up to six years to correct breaches. They must also apply for a licence and cannot sell or lease niches during the grace period.
Operators that close down will have to contact families to collect their ancestors' ashes and follow required procedures or face criminal liability.
Eddie Tse Sai-kit, convenor of a concern group on illegal columbariums, welcomed the government's proposal but thought the grace period was too long.
He also feared that temples with columbariums that had just a few niches before 1990 but turned commercial after 2000 might try to get exemptions.
Lai Hau-yan, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Columbarium Merchants Association, said several hundred operators would need a licence. Many might apply for the grace period resulting in a shortage of niches for a few years.