If the cost of living is high, the price to be paid after death is a killer. ELAINE KING reports on the financial side of loss. BURYING a loved one is upsetting enough, but when hundreds of thousands of dollars follow that person into the grave the experience can be devastating. And the bills only begin with the funeral. With land so expensive in Hong Kong, the rental nightmare that dogs the life of any long-term resident continues long after he has left this mortal coil. Even after burial, inflation ensures the cost of the plot continues to rise. And to add insult to injury, the scarcity of land means that however much a family is prepared to pay, there are no guarantees family members will be buried side by side. The only way to ensure you spend eternity with your nearest and dearest is to arrange for burial over the border. It is a scenario with which senior funeral negotiator and assistant to the managing director of the Hong Kong Funeral Home, Robert Chan, seems to have endless sympathy. Broach the subject and his face crumples, his eyes fill with unshed tears, his whole demeanour droops. Dressed in a sombre suit, he seems so genuinely concerned it is hard to believe his sympathy is merely professional. The only giveaway is the little pink form at his fingertips. It is what gets ticked off on this piece of paper - from flowers to professional mourners - that has the potential to decimate a bank balance. 'It costs a lot of money to do a funeral properly, a lot of money for a Chinese family who earn a middle income or less. It's very hard indeed for families who have not made preparations.' Mr Chan sighs. Then he seems to realise this meeting is not with a weeping relative and instantly snaps out of his misery. He leans forward conspiratorially: 'It's a good thing most of our funerals are not for gweilos. They don't care what happens to their bodies and spend the minimum on funerals. If this company relied on gweilo business we would go bankrupt.' He chuckles, fully restored to good spirits. The Hong Kong Funeral Home, in Quarry Bay, is easy to spot because of all the wreaths and flower arrangements laid out on the pavements. Step into the reception area and there is nothing funereal about the place. It is rather like a factory where the product is processed as quickly as possible. A large chalkboard hangs behind the receptionist announcing the day's proceedings - which occupant is in what reposing room, and whose funeral is taking place in which hall. A loudspeaker chatters away. Green government-issue chairs and cheap mosaic floors add to the institutional atmosphere. The Hong Kong Funeral Home is the only burial parlour on the island. Universal Funeral Parlour, International Funeral Parlour, Kowloon and Diamond Funeral Parlours deal with deaths in Kowloon and the New Territories. 'Things are changing,' Mr Chan says. 'We handle at least 300 cases a month. Many older people insist on being buried but youngsters are more conscious of the cost factor and are happy to be cremated.' He estimates about 80 per cent of Hong Kong people optfor cremation, which costs between $10,000 and $15,000. The storage of ashes is also a lot cheaper than paying for a burial plot. A traditional Chinese funeral costs at least $15,000 'depending on the extras you choose', Mr Chan says, tapping his pink form. 'For a Buddhist monk to conduct a three-hour service costs around $7,500, but a nun costs only $1,200.' The company offers a special, cheap deal for $7,500. 'This includes removal from the hospital, use of a reposing room and the main hall, but only for an hour. Also the cheapest coffin, made from something like hard-board, would be used.' He knocks on the wood, which sounds pathetically hollow, and shakes his head: 'It's very cheap.' About $40,000 buys a 'very nice funeral', he says. 'A bit more money, around $100,000, buys extras like special embalming, fresh flowers in the reposing room and hall, enlarged photos of the deceased, monks and nuns in the reposing room, piped music, a hearse and transport to fetch mourners. This is a jolly good show.' Mr Chan's pager starts to bleep and he rushes off. It turns out to be a long-distance call from Australia to finalise flight details of a body about to be flown 'home'. Because of his excellent English, Mr Chan handles all overseas clients. It costs a maximum of $20,000 to freight a body overseas, he says. 'A special package to Britain is about $10,000, and it's about $5,000 more to send a body to Europe. It all depends on the weight though - a really heavy person might cost more. 'It's a complicated business. We have to get the deceased's passport to the consul general of his home country. Before we can send him home, we need certification that the deceased was a citizen there [somebody has to identify the body] and then in France, Italy and the Philippines, the casket has to get a consulate stamp at the other end. This is all included in the package deal.' Death notices are also part of the service. Mr Chan starts thumbing through an album of clippings from local newspapers. 'It's terribly expensive,' he says. 'One of the newspapers in this town charges $163 per square inch [6.5 square centimetres]. Even the cheapest rate is $120. A 50 cm by 75 cm notice is average.' He stops at a particularly large notice complete with a picture of the deceased. 'See this. He was the Dragon Seed Emporium boss and his death notice was 132 cm.' Other extras include things like joss sticks to ward off evil spirits, and fine silk robes and slippers for the deceased. Fitting ladies, eating from lunch boxes, sit behind a cabinet filled with funereal finery. As they munch they are discussing the cost of these items with customers and recommending lucky packets (that must contain HK$1) and candy wrapped in a handkerchief to soothe grieving mourners. In a great hall on the third floor of the funeral home, the smell of new wood hangs in the air. This is where the coffins are stored. There are hundreds of them stacked in orderly rows, a vast choice of last resting places made to suit every budget. Mr Chan points to one of the most popular designs, a gleaming fir-wood cask called a Lotus. 'It costs $70,000, but it's cut from one tree and the lid is so heavy you can hardly lift it ... and look at the beautiful grain,' he says. As he walks on, he gestures towards another model: 'This one costs only $7,500 and it's made in what we call a kite shape from something like hard-board. These only take a 125-kilogram body, so if it was a larger person we would have to make a coffin specially to fit.' Between the Lotus and the cheap option is a coffin made from a wood that looks slightly smarter than hard-board and trimmed with an ornate gold pattern. This one costs $35,000. The details of the ceremony arranged, and left in Mr Chan's capable hands, the bereaved kin still have more considerations to take into account, and even larger bills to negotiate. They now have to buy a burial place. This is where T.K. Choy takes over. Mr Choy is executive secretary of the Christian Permanent Cemetery Board, one of the largest cemetery companies in Hong Kong and owner of the Chai Wan, Aberdeen, Tsuen Wan and Junk Bay graveyards. Whether you deal with Mr Choy's company or any of the other firms, the problems are the same: lack of space and very high rentals. 'At the moment our cemeteries on the Island are full, although vacancies do come up from time to time. Aberdeen has a 12,000 capacity, Tsuen Wan 17,000 and Chai Wan 10,000, but these are hard to get into. Luckily we have Junk Bay which will have a 27,000 capacity when it's finished, but as fast as we are completing each stage, it is filling up,' Mr Choy says. Because of the shortage of space, it is virtually impossible to book a burial plot in Hong Kong. 'We issue plots on a first come, first served basis. A death certificate has to be produced before anyone can get a grave, which means families don't get buried together like they used to.' Nor does a burial plot come cheap although, as in any other business, there are package deals available. 'For $220,000 a permanent plot can be secured - this means it belongs to the deceased forever and he cannot be exhumed. Plus, there is no inflation on this price. The most common package is the $22,000 deal which allows the deceased to occupy a plot for 10 years with an option to renew,' Mr Choy says. Of course, the lease has to be re-negotiated and this one is subject to inflation, but it gives the family a chance to keep their loved one in the grave should their finances improve in that time. 'The third package costs only $15,000, but is not negotiable. After 10 years the deceased is definitely exhumed, but he does get a free cremation niche.' That price also includes basic maintenance of the tomb unless it is damaged or subsides, which then makes it the family's responsibility. Cremation is much cheaper. 'The prices have just gone up, but they're still very reasonable. For $2,000 you can get a permanent niche in the cremation bank,' Mr Choy says. If these burial costs are simply too much to bear, or if you really want to be buried alongside your family the answer lies in crossing the border. Being laid to rest in China is far more affordable than it is here in Hong Kong. Wan Chai's Kongsum Investment Company offers a pre-booked burial plot at Wa Kiu Mo Yuen, near Shenzhen for you and your family. At a one-off lump sum price of $22,000 to 28,000 depending on the site, you can buy a two metre by four metre site. Here you can be assured of resting in peace.