Columbarium niche waiting game in HK

Updated: 2012-10-26 07:11

(HK Edition)

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Columbarium niche waiting game in HK

The thriving cemetery business on the mainland, particularly those in adjacent provinces in South China, provides an alternative choice for Hong Kong people who are faced with the challenge of finding a "home" among the city's small number of shrines to house the urns containing the ashes of their loved ones.

Hong Kong has basically stopped providing graveyard sites for new deaths given the shortage of land supply. Even if the supply of columbarium niches are still far from enough to cater for all the urns, with as many as 100,000 packs of ashes currently in limbo without any suitable place to house them in Hong Kong. Furthermore, people have to compete for a place to place their urns through a lottery system these days, local reports said earlier.

Despite the Hong Kong government's pledge to provide as many as 120,000 new niches - a niche is a hole in a wall to place an urn - between 2012 and 2016, and a further 100,000 niches in the medium-to-long-term between 2017 and 2031, it will still be a "forever" kind of deal to cater to the "real needs in Hong Kong" as the city is facing approximately 40,000 new deaths every year, said Andy Chui, chairman of Sage International Group, a company listed on the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong, which was originally an exhibitions organizer which has ventured into the cemetery development business a few years ago.

At the same time, the increasing aging population has become an escalating issue in Hong Kong, with the Census and Statistics Department in late July forecasting the lifespan expectancy to increase to 84.4 years for males and 90.8 years for females in 2041.

Siu Yat-ming, associate dean of Social Sciences from Hong Kong Baptist University, said the death rate of the Hong Kong population will inevitably hike up notably later on given that the whole society is increasingly getting older.

On the other hand, since Hong Kong people dislike their living environment to be surrounded by shrines, it is difficult for the government to designate suitable property to cater for columbarium niches in the tiny city, said Siu.

A columbarium niche in a public shrine costs around HK$3,000 in the city, but in private shrines, a columbarium niche the size of an A4 page, is priced from HK$50,000 or even higher, according to Chui.

Although Hong Kong people are not able to find graves or cheap niches in the city, they are also inactive in buying graves on the mainland, even in the neighboring Guangdong Province.

The major obstacle that hinders Hong Kong people from buying graveyard sites on the mainland is the relatively far distance, which relatives have to travel to worship their ancestors by crossing the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border every year during the Ching Ming festival, Chui said.

However, with the transport connections between Hong Kong and Guangdong provinces becoming more convenient particularly after the near completion of the High-Speed Railway and Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, Hong Kong people turning to the mainland to bury their dead loved ones may probably become a trend in the future, according to Chui.

"But I heard it is rather expensive to purchase graves on the mainland nowadays," said Siu, who is less bullish about the influx of Hong Kong people to the mainland to buy graveyard sites.

Siu, nevertheless, pinned his hopes on an increasing population in the city adopting more environmental approaches towards funerals, including burial at sea or gardens, at a much cheaper cost and less land occupation.

(HK Edition 10/26/2012 page2)