In Hong Kong, Even the Dead Wait in Line

In Hong Kong, Even the Dead Wait in Line

In Hong Kong, it can be hard just finding somewhere to sit down. In the fourth most densely populated place in the world, park benches are packed and strangers share tables at restaurants. But for the 40,000 people who die here every year, it turns out there’s no respite from the crowds, even in the afterlife. While a land shortage forced Hong Kongers to give up on burials long ago — only 11% of bodies were buried in 2007 — the city has also run out of space for cremated ashes. By some estimates, that means roughly 50,000 families must store their relatives’ remains in funeral homes and offices while they wait — often for years — to secure a 1-sq.-ft. resting place.

On April 14, the government began accepting applications for new cremation niches at its Diamond Hill columbarium, a massive nine-story building that stores cremation urns. The 18,500 new niches, the largest new public supply in almost a decade, compelled nearly 1,000 people to line up outside the columbarium office to personally submit their applications on opening day. “Hopefully this time I’ll find a place for my father so he can finally rest,” said Raymond Wong, who waited in line with his mother for three hours before turning in their paperwork. After his father passed away in December, Wong applied for a new niche at another of the city’s public columbaria, but was turned away after the spaces quickly filled up. Says Wong’s mother, Oi Tak Lo, “When we find a place for him, I will be at ease.”

Though the government plans to release 37,000 new niches by 2012, that supply will only meet the demands of one year’s cremations. By 2016, up to half of the people who die every year won’t be able to find a niche in public columbaria or their pricier private counterparts, according to government estimates. While a limited number of used niches open up from time to time, the wait can last longer than four years, and there are already 9,500 people on the waiting list.

For wealthy families, burial is still an option. Permanent plots are scarce and can cost upwards of $30,000. For roughly $3,000, temporary plots can be rented from the government for 10 years, after which the family can renew for another decade, or exhume the remains and yield the plot to someone else. Jockeying for burial space has become so intense that last year 18 cemetery supervisors were arrested for allegedly accepting bribes in order to exhume remains before they had fully decomposed. Families with overseas relatives have sent bodies abroad to bury, particularly in the U.S. and Canada, or looked across the border to China’s graveyards, but the journey to visit such graves can be taxing for older relatives.

And though the vast majority of people choose cremation, having a formal memorial to visit on holidays like the yearly Grave-Sweeping Festival remains a crucial part of Hong Kong culture. The government has proposed the construction of more columbaria, but local resistance has led district councils to reject the plans. Neighbors worry that proximity to columbaria will bring them bad luck, increase traffic on ancestral worship holidays, and drive down home values. “We Chinese call a place for the dead yum chaak, and a place for the living yeung chaak. They cannot be mixed or else the ghosts will go into the houses,” says Kenneth Leung, who runs a funeral-planning company in Hong Kong. “Nobody wants cemeteries or columbaria near their homes, but everybody needs them.”

The alternatives offered by the government have failed to take pressure off the system. There are eight public “gardens of remembrance,” where ashes can be buried in a public garden, but families have been slow to warm to this idea. Two years ago, the government announced that cremated ashes could be scattered at sea, but longstanding superstitions have led few to opt for this space-saving solution. Last year, only 243 people’s ashes were cast into the sea. Many frown on the idea of a body being separated and ingested by fish, and most families still want a physical place to visit. “My husband didn’t say much,” says Oi, 75, while waiting in line with her son at Diamond Hill last week. “But he did say that he didn’t want a sea burial. The old generation won’t agree with this.”

But something has to give. Hong Kong’s low birth rate means this population of 7 million is aging fast. In 2008, 12% of the population was over the age of 65; by 2036, that number is set to rise to 26%. The city’s annual death rate has doubled since 1970, and the entire funeral industry is scrambling to cope with the rising numbers. The government has been installing new, more efficient cremators, but bodies can be stored in morgues — often two to a compartment — for as long as two weeks before being cremated. For Oi, the uncertainty is an unwelcome source of stress as she grieves the loss of her husband of 40 years. “We don’t want to be a burden to our kids,” she says. “I just want to get this over with so my heart can be at peace.” For now, with no solution in sight, Oi and thousands of others can only wait.

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