IN 1932, Siu Ming, a young man of 18, was suddenly obliged to take over the family business when his father died. The business was coffins: the Fook Sau Coffin Shop had been founded by his grandfather, Siu Chung-kei, who had come to Hong Kong from Guangdong to seek his fortune. According to family legend, the entire assets of the business which Siu Ming inherited were four pieces of wood, enough to make one coffin. Siu Ming was evidently an excellent businessman because he went on to establish the Hong Kong Funeral Home in North Point, now run by his son, Kenneth Siu. When high society has to hold a funeral service, it is to North Point that the great and the good (and the attendant media cortege) make their way. Such capacity to serve has not gone unremarked. On the wall of the director's office, next to a portrait of Siu Ming and diagonally opposite a large painting of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene, there are many photographic line-ups of boards of directors of the Po Leung Kuk charity: to be one of that select few is a mark of Hong Kong social prominence. There is a framed citation from Queen Elizabeth. A blessing from the Pope is prominently displayed. Just beneath His Holiness' signature are two more photographs. One is of Miss USA 1984 and the other of Miss Universe 1984. Siu Ming encountered them on one of his frequent visits to Las Vegas. When he died in 1986, the directors of Caesar's Palace were sufficiently moved by the passing of such an esteemed client to present the funeral home with an impressive bust of its founder. It resides on the fourth floor, outside his former office, surrounded by flowers. It will come as no surprise to learn that death, like everything else in Hong Kong, has its lucrative aspects. Above Siu Ming's office there is a room full of coffins from which bereaved clients may select a casket for their loved ones. The first, just inside the door, is huge, lotus-shaped and bears the price-tag of $550,000; it is by no means the most expensive. A coffin constitutes the single largest outlay during any funeral and, traditionally, it was the item for which families paid as much as they could afford. In the old days, it was considered an act of filial piety if a son gave his elderly father a coffin as a birthday present; this removed all worry about the pressing economics of the inevitable burial. Times and tastes, however, are changing, and not just because of the moribund economy. 'People tend to choose cremation now and of course they will pick a cheaper coffin,' sighs Mr Wong at the Hong Kong Funeral Home. Mr Wong is not his real name: a proper sense of decorum and respect for this delicate business encourages him to opt for anonymity. 'This used to be the only funeral home in Hong Kong. Then, in the 1960s, there were two. Now there are more, and there are also 60 to 70 shops selling coffins, so people buy one then come here just to rent a room. Business is very competitive.' It scarcely helps that the Government is doing its best to make sure the people of Hong Kong are encouraged to spend as little as possible on the essential practicalities which accompany death. This isn't a mark of kindly paternalism: it's because of the severe shortage of land in the SAR. It is now so difficult and so deliberately expensive, at $280,000, to obtain a permanent grave, that most people are obliged to seek cremation, for which the Urban Services Department charges $1,300. The USD has a warning in its literature about the coffins suitable for this process: 'Heavily lacquered coffins will tend to produce dark smoke during cremation and unnecessarily thick wood used in the construction of coffins will waste more fuel ... Furthermore, in today's green trend, it is important that everyone should make an effort to protect the environment when cremation is practised. It is accepted by an increasing number of people that coffins of simple construction are as respectful to the dead as lavish designs.' There is an element of wishful thinking about this laudable statement, especially when the directive goes on to recommend coffins made of 'plywood, chipboard or recycled materials'. Mr Wong, when asked about the vexing question of the environment, raises his eyebrows in genuine surprise. The notion of saving trees by changing coffin-buying habits, he says, is unlikely to catch on in Hong Kong. Mei Ng, director of Friends of the Earth, is forced to agree. 'It haunts me,' she says, with appropriate feeling. 'If every Chinese wanted a noble burial, then what trees would be left? With the improvement of living standards in Hong Kong, Chinese people began spending more on coffins. Now, with the economic situation, we would welcome a chance to talk about alternatives so that people can take pride, in other ways, in the status of their funerals.' Status, cost, wildly extravagant coffins and government directives have been part of the Chinese way of death for thousands of years. A man called Wang Hu once grumbled about the felling of trees and the excessive expenditure which went into obtaining desirable caskets: 'The waste of labour entailed by this abuse and the damage it causes to agriculture makes the heart bleed.' That was written in the first half of the second century AD. The classic analysis of death in China was carried out by a Dutchman called J.J.M. De Groot who, in 1892, wrote an epic, multi-volume work called The Religious System Of China. He makes much the same comment: 'If it be true that destruction of forests changes the climate, it is certain that the partiality manifested by the Chinese since times of old for preserving their dead against decay by using coffins and vaults of the best sorts of wood procurable has been one of the great causes of the terrible droughts and floods which regularly visit large tracts of the country ...' De Groot's work is fascinating and highly detailed - it's in the City Hall library if you want to read it - but he based himself in Amoy, now called Xiamen, in Fujian province. As a result, he makes only a few brief references to what he calls Canton. One of these accompanies a description of the Cantonese practice of storing bodies in a building called a chong, where the dead could pass the time while waiting to be buried in a site chosen by a fung shui master (an expensive and lengthy business) or in one in the native village (again, an expensive, tricky matter to organise at short notice). More than a century later, the institution of the chong is still kept alive, so to speak, in Hong Kong. The Tung Wah Group of Hospitals operates one in Sandy Bay, Pokfulam. The irreverent refer to it as a Hotel for the Dead but to the Tung Wah Group it is a Coffin Home. It was built in 1899 and some of the 285 bodies reposing in it have been there for eight decades, awaiting final transfer. The group's archives show that in 1912 it cost $250 initial entrance fee, plus $15 rental a month. Now, the Tung Wah Group charges a one-off payment of $5,000 for half a room (each room can hold two coffins) and $200 monthly rental. Families, especially those who have moved abroad, still avail themselves of this modern chong but it is considered expensive. And there is an alternative way of coping with the pressing needs of both fung shui and possible interment in distant villages on the mainland. It is an ancient funeral practice in Guangdong - although De Groot, in thousands of pages of research, mentions it in passing only - and it has proved extremely convenient to a 20th-century Hong Kong government faced with severe land shortages. It is the tradition of the double burial. Dr Patrick Hase is a former government official who has carried out extensive research on this aspect of Chinese culture. He lives in a village near Tai Po which has a selection of bone pots lined up under cover along the roadside. Anyone who lives, or goes hiking, in the New Territories will be familiar with these plain jars scattered all over the region. As the name suggests, they contain the bones of the dead. 'The Chinese believe there are several souls in each person,' Dr Hase explains. 'There is the soul taken to judgment and eventual rebirth. There is the soul which abides in the ancestral tablet and/or tomb. And there is the third soul, the animal spirit, kept in check by the other spirits. But after death this spirit survives; it's presumed to be hungry and it's very dangerous for the living. This animal spirit dissipates with the flesh and the Chinese believe it takes seven years for the flesh to rot. Once the bones are bare, it's a clean body and the only spirit left is the ancestral spirit, which isn't hungry and isn't a fung shui risk.' In the rest of China, bodies could be buried far enough away to pose no risk in the first seven years, while remaining close enough to allow homage to be paid during such major festivals as Ching Ming, in the spring, and Chung Yeung, celebrated on Wednesday. But in the crowded south, the custom developed of burying the dead twice: once, at a safe distance from the village, and again, seven years later, closer to home. So after the flesh is judged to have rotted away the initial coffin is dug up, the bones are stacked in a pot about 60 cm tall in the same order as in the body (beginning with the toe bones at the bottom and working up to the skull, just under the lid) and placed on a hillside near the village. Some families have placed their pots in small brick enclaves with metal grilles to protect them from wild animals. Some important figures in the community have been buried in the omega-shaped graves which are also a feature of the New Territories landscape. Contrary to some expectations there are no bodies inside; they contain the same simple bone-pot, but placed in an underground room. 'Usually families will worship the three previous generations of the oldest surviving family member, that is, back to the oldest member's great-grandfather,' says Dr Hase. 'So after about 100 years the pots cease to be worshipped. But the omega-graves are likely to be worshipped on a permanent basis.' The relevance of this double-burial tradition, which Dr Hase thinks was originally Thai and which occurs in certain locations around Asia, but not at all in northern China, became apparent to the British administration in the 1930s. By then, it was obvious Hong Kong had a serious problem with dwindling grave spaces. There were discussions with Chinese elders and it dawned on administrators that a solution which would be unthinkable in the West - the exhumation of bodies after an allotted time - could be made to fit the physical and cultural needs of the community here. So the exhumable grave was introduced in urban Hong Kong after the war. 'It never met with significant opposition because there was no serious cultural barrier to cross,' says Dr Hase. 'They were pushing on an open door.' Those who came from outside Hong Kong and who might have been scandalised - refugees from Shanghai, for instance - soon realised that because the local community was happy enough to go along with the idea, so should they. And, unlike in China, where the new Communist government had introduced obligatory cremations to try to rid the country of feudal fung shui superstitions, there was still a choice. And the Hong Kong government made sure columbaria, where bones are stored and relations pay their respects during festivals, were built - although from the beginning it refused to allow geomancers in to choose niches with good fung shui. There are no columbaria on the mainland. Today, the Government still makes available a plot of exhumable land within a cemetery (the current price is $15,000), it provides an exhumation service ($3,000) and it allots space in a government columbarium ($2,600) for the bones. Every year, about a week before spring's Ching Ming festival, an exhumation order appears in the Government Gazette requiring the removal of all human remains interred in graves for more than six years. If the remains are not exhumed after the expiry of the exhumation order, government workers disinter them, cremate them and re-inter the ashes in the communal grave at Sandy Ridge Cemetery. Cremation, however, has become the most popular method of dealing with a body after a funeral. A decade ago, about half the Hong Kong population concerned chose cremation; now the figure is closer to two-thirds. Unlike in the western tradition of cremation the ashes are not scattered, so the family can continue to pay its respects. This is fairly cheap: a standard niche for two cinerary urns in a columbarium costs $2,800. Looking at the figures, it's clear the Government is doing all it can to make cremation the most attractive option financially, because that's what suits Hong Kong's needs. And yet, being seen to have as lavish a funeral as possible is still part of Hong Kong's psyche. When the old urban council ran a funeral home for a while in Hunghom, everyone knew it was the cheapest place to have a funeral and consequently a stigma became attached to it. As Hong Kong grew more wealthy, so people became ashamed of using the home and eventually it closed. (The building still has morbid connections: it's where the Government keeps a large cache of collapsible coffins and body bags for use in a major disaster.) The Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, which runs a funeral parlour in Hunghom and one in Diamond Hill, now offers the cheapest funerals in the SAR. Andrew Shum, the executive officer in charge of funeral services in Hunghom (who happens, with singular appropriateness, to have a copy of the book Angela's Ashes on his desk) says prices start at about $6,200. 'But Chinese people, if they can afford it, will spend as much as they can on the funeral. They believe if they do that for their passed-away ones, it won't just benefit the deceased but also later generations. And now I think people try to spend money for convenience, to compensate for what they used to do in the past.' The burning of paper products and hell banknotes is the most obvious manifestation of the Hong Kong need to be seen to be spending money: the whole idea, after all, is to make sure those in the underworld have an accurate grasp of the social standing of the recently arrived soul. (Mini representations of Hong Kong Tatler are not offered yet, but it's surely only a matter of time.) 'The standard amount [spent on] paper-burning is about $4,000,' Mr Shum. But according to Mr Wong at the more upmarket Hong Kong Funeral Home, '$8,000 is considered quite good'. Quite good for whom? 'For those people who see it being burned. People are more inclined these days to the minor details of the ceremony to make it as perfect as possible. For rich people they burn a Rolls-Royce or a Mercedes, and if they are used to travelling, they will even burn a paper airplane. That can cost over $1,000 because of the workmanship.' Is it worth it? 'If that is what people want,' replies Mr Wong gently, 'then it's worth it.'