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Ageing society

Question must finally be faced as Hong Kong resting place shortage looms

Proposal to remove ashes from public niches after 20 years unless fee is paid appears heartless, but something must be done to avert cremations crisis

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 April, 2018, 1:21am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 April, 2018, 1:21am

Finding an affordable place to live in Hong Kong is not easy. Finding a burial place is just as difficult. The difference is that while you can spend a lifetime looking for the former, the latter is, presumably, once and for all. But if the authority in charge of columbariums has its way, even final resting places will no longer be final.

In what appears to be an expedient solution to the growing shortage of public burial places, the government proposes that new public niches will be allocated on a condition. After 20 years, they must be renewed for a fee every 10 years. When no one comes forward, the ashes will be taken out and discarded. Officials say a considerable number of niches do not receive visitors as years go by, and they believe the new rule will speed up turnover and promote sustainable usage.

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The proposal is controversial, not just because it upsets the customs and beliefs that burial is essentially one’s final resting place; it also poses as much of a hassle for the government and the families concerned. Whether you will be laid to rest permanently depends on if you have someone to keep renewing the lease for your niche indefinitely. If the answer is no or uncertain, you may as well opt for a green burial in the first place, or someone else may do it for you in the end.

Lamentable as it is, the proposal stems from the harsh reality that our land is so precious that it is better used by the living than the dead. It is true that the supply of public niches is outstripped by demand and many are eventually forgotten. Heartless as it sounds, officials are not wrong in challenging the public to make tough choices. Should we promote a fundamental change in culture and practices today or keep sacrificing precious land for columbariums that are not visited by future generations?

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Only time can tell whether the move may effectively ease the shortage of burial places in the long run, but disputes are likely if the procedures of removing ashes are not properly followed. A crisis is looming when more than 10,000 urns may have to be displaced with a dozen or so unauthorised columbariums facing being put out of business by a new licensing law. This sorry state of affair speaks volumes of the challenges in providing sufficient burial places.

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Even if the government wins public support for the new rule, it does not mean it can sit back. Cremations are projected to exceed one million in the next two decades, but only some 200,000 niches have been commissioned in the next two years. A lot more needs to be done to meet the demand. Officials must redouble their efforts in convincing the public to support new columbarium projects in their districts. It would also do well for people to consider having their ashes scattered at designated memorial sites or at sea.