Sleeping With the Fishes (or the Lawn) in Hong Kong

A man in black burns offerings in the Garden of Remembrance in Cape Collinson, at the easternmost point of Hong Kong Island. Ashes float in the misty rain. On the edge of Hong Kong’s busy downtown, the garden, surrounded by stately walls and abuzz with insects, is always peaceful and serene. There are several walls full of photos of smiling people who are now laid to rest here.

On the pathways the signs read: “Please keep off, lawn for scattering cremated ashes” – a new way of going to rest in one of the world’s most expensive cities in which to live, and also one of the most expensive in which to die. Facing a scarcity of space and a rise in deaths in a city with the world’s longest life expectancy, the government spent over four decades persuading citizens to turn to cremations instead of burials. Now, however, space to store ashes is also quickly running out. A niche to hold a funeral urn in cemeteries can cost over HK$1 million (US$128,125). Even if it were affordable, the average waiting time is four years. Some ashes have been waiting and gradually forgotten in coffin shops for more than 10 years.

Since 2005, the government has been promoting “green burials.” With financial support, people are encouraged to scatter ashes in 11 gardens of remembrance or at sea for free.

“We are providing a new choice for Hong Kong residents,” said Tang Chunlung, Health Inspector of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. “Scattering ashes in gardens or at sea is a more practical and sustainable way to honor the dead.” Even so, there were 877 burials at sea and 3196 cases in gardens in 2015, only 8.7% of cremations.

Generations in Hong Kong have been following ancient traditions to worship the dead. They spend lots of money on ceremonious funerals and prime burial spots. These rites also represent the social and economic standing of a family.

Religion is another challenge. “Green burials are disrespect towards the dead,” said Father Dominic Chan Chi-Ming, president of The Catholic Cemeteries, “If someone’s remains are scattered, the person would be incomplete, let alone giving the person a home.” Hong Kong Catholics are following a 2016 directive from the Vatican, which ruled that Catholics are not allowed to scatter ashes into the air, soil, water or anywhere else, if there is anywhere else. Only a traditional burial conforms to the Catholic belief of the bodily resurrection.

“Burials are always in first priority, and then follow cremation niches, scattering ashes at sea or gardens rank at the bottom. This is the hierarchy in people’s mind,” said Dr Hi-Po Lau, a training officer working on death education from The University of Hong Kong. Her grandfather passed away seven years ago and was buried in a private cemetery in Aberdeen.

“We were so lucky that there happened to be a spot,” Lau recalled. The spot cost about HK$400,000 then. “Now it’s not about money. There is just no space of burial anymore,” she said.

Lau has asked her parents about their plans after death. They are willing to be scattered in gardens. “They find niches so expensive,” Lau said with a weak smile. “We are already paying too much for a place to live. A niche to die costs even more.”

But her parents can’t accept to be scattered at sea. “In gardens, they can still have a plaque bearing their names and photos. That is the most important,” Lau said, “A plaque is like a home. Future generations can visit to pay homage. Most funeral rites are not for the dead, but for the alive.”

For herself, Lau wants her ashes to be kept at home. “I don’t want people to step on me in gardens or be eaten by fish at sea,” she said. Rare people choose to keep ashes at home in Hong Kong. Chinese people believe that the dead are on another side of the world. Mixing home for the dead and for the living is crossing the two sides and seen as anathema. But as the society is being more open and international, taboos like this are gently fading.

Teresa, who asked that her full name not be used, is keeping her husband’s remains at home. She was born during the Japanese occupation in Hong Kong and married an American. Her husband died in Hong Kong in 2010. “I wouldn't mind spreading my own ashes together with my husband's in the deep blue sea when the time comes,” Teresa said, “provided I can find the right hands that I can trust to scatter our ashes.”

To promote green burials, the government is putting more effort into death education. But it isn’t easy. “There is an age gap. People in their 50s might pay attention to the websites and brochures. But the promotion hardly approaches people in their 90s, who might pass away soon,” Lau said.

“It is hard. But we are making progress step by step. The rate of green burials rises from 0.97 percent in 2007 to 8.7 percent in 2015,” Tang said, “just like we succeeded several decades in making people accept cremation. Through public education, people will gradually change their minds.”

At an MTR station, a promotional video on scattering of ashes is being broadcast. There is an endless ocean on the screen with the sound of waves. An elderly local actor is saying with a smile: return to nature where every end is a new beginning. In front of the big screen busy office workers are passing by, intently looking down at their phones.

Deng Yang is a graduate student at the Hong Kong University Journalism and Media Studies Center. This was written as part of a publishing partnership with Asia Sentinel