Even death does not provide relief from soaring property prices in Hong Kong, where those seeking a final resting place for a loved one face high costs and a shortage of space. The squeeze has become so acute that traditional Chinese thinking — where not having a proper burial or a fixed site at which to remember the dead denies the soul a peaceful resting place — is eroding in favor of sea funerals.
“You can travel anywhere in the sea, you flow with the tide, it’s very elegant,” said funeral director Alex Cheng, who has been conducting sea ceremonies for Hong Kong families over the past three years. “When the ashes are scattered into the sea, it’s very romantic, very pretty.”
Sea funerals have gained popularity since restrictions — based on pollution and fishing worries — were eased in 2007 amid efforts to solve a “persistent shortage” of niches for cremated ashes. And the government is providing the transportation for what it says is an environmentally friendly solution, with its own free ferry service that includes an onboard funeral director assisting families with their ceremonies.
The ferry service illustrates the popularity of sea funerals, with the number of families choosing the ceremony jumping four-fold between 2007 and last year to more than 650 annually, according to government figures. In that time, ferry capacity has been doubled to 200 people and since January, a larger vessel has been deployed to accommodate more families using the free service.
According to traditional Chinese culture, a person should be buried, with heaven, earth and mankind forming the three basic elements of Confucianism, according to Hong Kong Confucianism Society (香港儒學會) president Lai Sai-foon (黎世寬).
“This is why a body has to be buried because it signifies the return to the earth,” he said. “But times have changed. If you want a burial now, there is no land, so it has become impossible to observe that. What has not changed, however, is that we must remember our ancestors — even though through other means — as Confucianism emphasizes ancestral worship.”
In Hong Kong, a private burial plot typically costs more than HK$250,000 (US$32,200), although a plot at government cemetery can be leased at a much lower cost starting from HK$3,190 on a six-year basis, depending on its availability.
However, that comes with a catch — the corpse has to be exhumed and either cremated or re-buried in a smaller plot after six years.
A place in government-run columbarium meanwhile starts from about HK$3,000, while those at private columbaria begin at 10 times that price and can rise up to hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong dollars.