Facing up to death is something everyone has to do sooner or later but many might think it macabre - or at least tempting fate - to go on a tour to check out funeral operations. Not so for 30 elderly Hong Kong folk, who even found time to joke as they joined a funeral exploratory tour organised by the St James' Settlement. Some of them even surprised younger family members by opting to have their ashes scattered rather than being buried in expensive coffins or having their remains stored in a columbarium. A free ash-scattering ceremony is being offered by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department at eight gardens of remembrance in government-run columbaria around the city. People can choose to have their ashes scattered around one of the gardens or have them buried. For an additional fee, relatives can plant a tree over the spot. A 70-year-old couple giving only their surname, Ho, chose to have their ashes scattered after going on the tour. 'This is the best because even if we spent money on niches or burial spaces there would be no guarantee that our kids would pay their respects,' Mr Ho said. The service might help solve the shortage of niches and burial spaces in Hong Kong, where there were more than 38,000 deaths last year. An official at the columbarium of Kwai Chung Crematorium said that in the 18 months he had been in the job, there had barely been one application for the free disposal of ashes in the columbarium's garden of remembrance. 'Most families prefer a permanent spot like a niche or a burial space for their loved ones so they can pay their respects in the years ahead.' But he said the free scattering service had suddenly become more popular, with four applications this month. He was speaking after burying the ashes of an 80-year-old woman. Her niece, May Lam, said she was shocked at first when her aunt made her choice. 'But the process was so peaceful - this is after all what we mean by 'ashes to ashes'. I feel I have satisfied my aunt's last wish.' She said money should be spent on looking after elderly family members before they died instead of on an expensive funeral.