Funeral expo shows new ways to deal with the dead

Updated: 2011-05-20 17:00
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HONG KONG - For the seven million citizens of Hong Kong, living comfortably in the one of the world's most densely populated cities is difficult enough, but dying presents is own set of challenges.

Around 43,700 people died in Hong Kong in 2010. By 2020 that number is expected to rise to almost 53,000. A majority will be cremated, since land shortages forced most people to abandon burials in the 1980s and cremations became acceptable.

But now the city's public columbarium, where relatives can keep ashes in an urn in a 30 cm (one foot) crevice in a wall, has run out of space.

As a result, Hong Kong residents have been forced to store their loved ones' remains in funeral homes, privately-run storage facilities, or their own homes.

"In recent years there are more than 100,000 people waiting for columbarium space," said Tiu Tong Ng, Honourable President of Hong Kong's Funeral Director Association.

"Usually it take three to four years to obtain this kind of space. The government has to solve this problem," he told the Asia Funeral Expo, which opened in Hong Kong on Thursday.

In 2010, the government identified 17 new potential sites for columbaria in five districts, and looked at relaxing regulations on private columbaria in industrial buildings.

But local residents are resisting these plans, concerned about bad feng shui and a constant stream of mourners burning the traditional paper and incense offerings in their neighbourhood, especially during festivals.

The government has also urged residents to think of alternatives, such as scattering ashes in memorial gardens or at sea. But these are unpopular with Chinese mourners, who want a permanent resting place to visit and honour their dead.

Enter SIMTECH, a German electronics company that produces touch-screens and has teamed up with the manager of two memorial gardens in Shanghai to provide memorial databases for people whose ashes were scattered at sea.

Visitors can type in the name of a person on a screen and then call up pictures, a curriculum vitae, or whatever the person wanted. SIMTECH says that once installed, the screens require no maintenance and have been tested to withstand temperatures from -40C to 80C.

"I think it's also very interesting for the cemeteries that they can offer their customers something new," said SIMTECH business manager Stephan Simanowski.  

Since the Shanghai memorial garden introduced the technology two years ago, ashes being scattered at sea have increased by 100 percent, he added.

The technology is also available for land-based burials. One noted Chinese director, Xie Jin, has a screen on his tombstone playing his biography and films.

The expo also showed that, like many other industries, the funeral business is also trying to go "green."

Biodegradable urns, paper coffins and emissions-reducing crematoria were all presented.

Custom-decorated, recycled cardboard coffins made by an Australian firm, LifeArt, can carry 250 kg but weigh only 10 kg, their lightness helping to fight global warming.

"You'll probably have an 80 percent difference in emissions and burn time," said Natalie Verdon, LifeArt business manager.

"That's been a very big thing for all the crematoriums, to watch the emissions."

For those who don't want to be parted from the departed, the South Korean firm "Immortal Jade" offers to turn ashes into the precious stone in under an hour - for a mere $1,500.

"We process for (around)40 minutes," said manager Marie Park Youngeun.  

"It's just made from the pure ashes, but we can also add some colours if you want a certain colour. And it varies in colour and size because you have different elements in the body," she added.