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Hong Kong's land shortage forces bereaved to sea
by Staff Writers
Hong Kong (AFP) July 3, 2012

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 favour of sea funerals.

"You can travel anywhere in the sea, you flow with the tide, it's very elegant," funeral director Alex Cheng, who has been conducting sea ceremonies for Hong Kong families over the past three years, told AFP.

"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 2011 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.

On the ferry, Cheng helps families to transfer the ashes of their loved ones to a biodegradable bag, which is placed on to a wooden chute upon which it will slide into the sea.

Property manager Michael So said it was his 92-year-old mother's wish to have her ashes scattered at sea.

"She thought a sea funeral suited her best, as she wanted to embrace nature and this method is more environmentally friendly," he said as his family solemnly observed funeral rites.

-- Prices in the heavens --

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 president Lai Sai-foon.

"This is why a body has to be buried because it signifies the return to the earth," he told AFP.

"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 emphasises ancestral worship".

In Hong Kong a private burial plot typically costs over HK$250,000 ($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.

But that comes with a catch -- the corpse has to exhumed and either cremated or re-buried in a smaller plot after six years.

A place in government-run columbarium meanwhile starts from around HK$3,000 while those at private columbaria begin at ten times that price and can rise up to hundreds of thousands dollars.

Cheng said the concept of a funeral at sea is gaining more acceptance, despite it going against Chinese tradition dictating that a body has to remain intact and buried.

"In the beginning, people were unable to accept the idea," he said.

"We started out with only one small boat but now, more and more people have begun to accept sea funerals. I conduct the ceremony for about 80 to 100 families every month," said Cheng.

The government has vowed to provide over 120,000 new niches between 2012 to 2016 -- but that is unlikely to help ease the shortage of places if it is to match the 41,400 annual deaths in the city, according to official figures.

Efforts to build such facilities can also be stymied by opposition from superstitious residents who are afraid such sites will bring misfortune and negatively impact the value of their properties.

All of which is helping the concept of sea funerals catch on.

"The dead are the dead, no matter what kind of ceremonies you do, the results are the same," said So onboard the ferry after scattering the ashes of his mother.

"To me, missing loved ones means there is a place in my heart to pray for them. Having a funeral at sea is a good choice."


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