Where the Dead Go in Hong Kong

Daniel Priestley - Writer and Editor

They say there are two things in life that are certain: death and taxes. Death has been around as long as humans have been living and the oldest known burial took place about 130,000 years ago. Rituals, burials and funerals are seen as perhaps the earliest form of religious practice and show that humans have long been concerned about what happens after death. Alongside burials, cremation - the practice of reducing a corpse to its essential elements by burning - traces back to at least the Ancient Greeks as early as 1000 BC. However cremation didn’t really become popular in the modern world until 1874 when Queen Victoria’s surgeon published a book on the topic called Cremation: The Treatment of the Body After Death.

Problems surrounding the procedures associated to death have often drawn creative and sometimes bizarre solutions. For example, when the black death killed an estimated 50 million people, or 60% of the population of Europe at the time, towns dug plague pits where the infected dead were thrown en masse. No visitors were allowed to these pits, including relatives of the deceased, and often no religious ceremony or ritual was performed for the dead individual. Another bizarre example was in 1784 when the Holy Roman Empire needed to conserve wood, the Emperor Joseph II decided to start using reusable coffins with trap doors installed in the bottom. However this only lasted about 6 months until public outcry prevented the practice from carrying on. The reason these problems from death come about is because the practicalities are not necessarily a factor in the customs and traditions surrounding funerals and therefore economic and pragmatic factors can cause a complete breakdown of the system entirely.

selective focus photography of gray tombstone cross

Chinese death tradition stresses the importance of a peaceful burial, linking a favourable future for the dead in the afterlife with the funeral. Problems surrounding the practicalities of death in Hong Kong began in the 1850s when graveyards covering the hills began to be viewed as a social nuisance and were linked to issues with the environment and health. Cremation was seen as one solution to this problem. The first crematorium was built in colonial Hong Kong and was finished in 1899. Whilst cremation may seem averse to “peaceful” burial, Chinese people have adapted, still worshipping the ashes of the dead because when the body is cremated, under Chinese tradition, the soul still survives. No permanent cemeteries for the chinese existed at the turn of the 20th century so the government agreed to open one. However this cemetery, built in Aberdeen (on Hong Kong Island), was built and dominated by Chinese Elites meaning it mainly catered to the needs of the upper class.

Following intensive urbanization and modernization in Hong Kong, in the 1930s cremation was heavily promoted as an option to reduce the space taken up by burials. The government even took steps to arbitrarily enforce the practice of cremation instead of burials, using government cremation houses and then moving the ashes to Wo Hop Shek cemetery. Despite some investment into the industry, there continues to be a severe shortage of places to store human ash in the modern day. Coffin shops provide temporary ash urn repository services for their clients because of the waiting time to find an “ash niche” (a spot in a crematorium to store the ash.) The annual number of deaths in Hong Kong has increased dramatically in the last fifty years from 24,832 in 1981 to 46,108 in 2015 (according to the Census and Statistics Department.) In 2013, more than 90% of the city’s dead were cremated but the Food and Environmental hygiene Department in Hong Kong now estimates an average waiting time of four years to find an ash niche. Due to the lack of options, prices have increased dramatically as a result meaning that now when you compare the square footage of a luxury apartment in Hong Kong with that of an ash niche, being dead is now more expensive than having a place to live.

Burial is also only an option for wealthy families in Hong Kong with permanent plots costs over twenty three thousand pounds. For about two and a half thousand pounds, so-called temporary plots can be rented for 10 years, after which the family can either pay for another decade or exhume (a fancy word for dig up) the remains and yield the plot to someone else. This practice seems absolutely bizarre, especially given the focus of Chinese tradition on a “peaceful burial” but it seems like the only practical solution for less well off families who wish to find a way to bury their dead.

The problems in Hong Kong represent an interesting case study into the problems of a heavily growing population in a limited space. With our global population expected to hit about 9.7 billion by 2050, in a 100 years time will those of us without rich children be dug up because there’s no space left?



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