Missing coffins? Hong Kong’s Covid-19 deaths leave funeral agents struggling to meet demand for caskets
- Sharp rise in deaths during fifth wave of Covid-19 has led to stolen caskets, mix-ups, insiders say
- With crematoriums running overtime, funeral workers are working longer hours to meet demand
The family of a 91-year-old man who died of heart failure were shocked to learn hours before his funeral in Hong Kong last Sunday that his coffin could not be found.
With the body still at a private hospital’s mortuary, the funeral agent could not explain what happened to the HK$3,000 casket the family had chosen.
“We don’t know if it was stolen or mistakenly taken away, the agent could not give an answer,” the dead man’s daughter, Irene So, a supervisor of a charity, told the Post.
She said that as soon as her father died more than a fortnight ago, the family fixed a date for the funeral and confirmed with the funeral agent that a casket was available and stored in a warehouse in Hung Hom.
The funeral eventually went ahead as planned after the coffin supplier compensated the family by providing a casket of a better quality.
Hong Kong Funeral Business Association chairman Ng Yiu-tong said he had heard of coffins allegedly stolen from warehouses earlier this month, when the high number of deaths from the city’s fifth wave of Covid-19 infections resulted in a shortage of caskets.
“I heard about isolated cases of coffins that were stolen and that police reports were made. It is very immoral to steal a dead person’s coffin,” he said.
But he added that he would not be surprised if funeral workers mixed up casket orders by mistake as the industry faced its busiest period since the pandemic began two years ago.
Since the fifth wave of infections hit Hong Kong three months ago, there have been 1.13 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 7,493 related deaths as of Wednesday.
“With crematoriums running for longer hours to cope with extra bodies, funeral workers have been working until nearly midnight,” he said, adding that workers who used to deal with four bodies a day before the fifth wave were now working on twice that number.
“Mistakes may happen given the heavier workload,” he said.
For most of March, about 200 people died every day from Covid-19 alone, besides deaths from other causes. That meant almost all the 250 to 300 coffins brought to Hong Kong from mainland China every day were used up.
The Department of Heath said on Monday that 3,570 coffins arrived in the city between March 24 and 26, but Ng said they would meet demand for only two or three weeks.
As of 9am on Tuesday, 3,400 bodies were stored at public mortuaries and temporary facilities, taking up almost three-quarters of the 4,600 places available, the department said.
It said earlier that besides increasing the storage space, it had also had more manpower to speed up documentation so families could proceed with funerals sooner.
A veteran funeral home source said suppliers would usually compensate families if a casket went missing.
“It is common that several suppliers rent a warehouse near funeral homes to store coffins, and the stocks are not well organised,” the insider said. “There is a high chance of a mix-up as coffins all look similar.”