Government policy on columbaria and funeral niches leaves public in the dark
Reporters: Amy Leung and Liz Yuen
Located on Ma Si Chau, an island off Tai Po, Shui Mong Tin, a site of special scientific interest, is covered in lush vegetation. The paths are shaded by tall trees and the sound of birds accompanies the sound of the sea. These paths lead to a shell beach which, according to geologists, also has some of Hong Kong’s oldest sedimentary rock formations.
But on a recent visit to the site, Varsity was shown a much later addition to the landscape.
An outdoor columbarium, which is right on the beach, will offer up to 3,600 niches for buyers to place the ashes of the deceased. At present, around ten marble niches at the site have been purchased. Rows and rows of niches will stretch in terraces from the beach inland over a distance of over 100 metres.
Two marble figures of the Goddess of Mercy stood at around two metres high and there was a marble altar where people had placed offerings for the dead.
According to Eddie Tse Sai-kit, the convener of the Alliance for Concern over Columbarium Policy who accompanied Varsity on the visit, each urn costs HK$200,000.
Also present during the visit was Young Ng Chun-yeong, the chairman of the Association for Geoconservation. He says the area around Shui Mong Tin has been used for agriculture for a long time. But, now, instead of growing crops, the landowners have found that housing the dead is a more profitable venture.
It is not hard to see why. Hong Kong’s housing problems extend to the realm of the dead; there simply is not enough space.
According to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), there are consistently close to 40,000 applicants queuing up for the public niches each year, but all the 170,000 public niches have been allotted to those who have been on the waiting list for years. It takes at least 38 months to get a place. This chronic shortage results in the mushrooming of private columbaria.
Ng says operators choose to develop in these remote agricultural areas because they can escape paying the required premium when they alter the original land use. He says the landowners in Shui Mong Tin told the authorities the changes made in the area were part of a “greening” project. He adds that because it is private land they do not have to consult the villagers and can avoid being examined by and seeking approval from the Town Planning Board.
In other words, they can maximize profits and minimize costs.
Tse says the government has the power to ask the owners to return the land to its original use and, if it does so, the ashes of the dead might have to be moved from their resting places. “The buyers will bear the risk of losing the urns they paid for if the government does not permit the alteration of land use,” he says
Apart from the possible implications for the buyers of the urns, Young Ng is concerned about the damage the development of the private columbarium in Shui Mong Tin has on the geological features of the area. “It’s easy to damage, but it’s impossible to recover.”
Ng says the rocks at the shell beach are 280 million years old while the trees that have been cut down to make way for the rows of urns were hundreds years old.
But Tse says it seems the landowners do not care about the ecological value of the land in Shui Mong Tin. They do not consider factors like planning for land use, transportation, pollution and geoconservation. “It’s truly ‘real estate hegemony’ for the homes of the dead.”
What is more worrying is that if the operation of the columbarium in Shui Mong Tin proves to be a successful case, other landowners may follow suit.
The Association for Geo-conservation has reported the case to both the Lands Department and the Planning Department but no action has been taken to stop the construction work so far.
When Varsity asked the government about the status of the columbarium, the Development Bureau spokesman said columbarium use was not permitted in the lease of the area but that the owners had made an application for change of land use. This application has not yet been approved, nor is it known if it will be. It is currently on what is known as List B.
This is part of a scheme the government is using to try to control the proliferation of the private columbaria by introducing a listing system to divide officially approved locations from those without approval.
To qualify for List A, a columbarium must comply with the land lease and statutory land and town planning requirements. Facilities that cannot live up to the regulations are put under List B.
But what we found is that some columbaria ignore or bypass the listing system and keep developing their own businesses.
As Varsity browsed through different websites online, it was easy to see many large-scale and resourceful columbaria, which are in List B, promoting different kinds of service plans.
Posing as a potential deemed customer, our reporter approached a funeral consultancy company providing a wide range of services, like burial and cremation and advice on every aspect of the funeral ceremony.
The salesperson gave assurances about the List B columbarium in Sha Tin that he was promoting. He said the columbarium had applied for List A status and that even if that was not approved after a three-year consultation period followed by a two-year transition period, “there is no need to move to other places, no need to be removed.”
The salesperson said that in such a scenario, the government would simply temporarily stop them from selling their remaining places until they met the requirements. Niches that were already sold or reserved would be safe, he said, stressing the government had no right to ask them to remove the niches because the land is owned by the columbarium.
However, that was not the message we got from the government. We referred the case to the Lands Department of Sha Tin District. The spokesperson said that if the columbarium could not get a licence after five years, the government has the power, ultimately, to resume possession of the land if the land use is inappropriate.
In other words, the buyers of the niches are not secure, and the large sums of money they have paid do not guarantee them security.
Some buyers may not see the pitfalls when they sign contracts with the columbaria.
Eddie Tse cites cases where buyers sign a contract not with the columbarium itself, but with a third party. In order to shift the responsibility, the company which owns the columbarium usually does not use the company’s name. Instead, they create another company, with whom the buyer signs the contract.
If a customer later returns to request a refund, this company may have closed down and the columbarium will not need to shoulder the responsibility.
Tse says some columbaria use tricky sales pitches to ensnare elderly people. Promoters urge the elderly to buy the urns by saying the prices of the urns will go up drastically when the columbaria are shifted from List B to List A. One old man signed a contract and purchased a place for $100,000. Now his son has to pay monthly to clear the debt but there is no guarantee the columbarium will get List A status.
Tse says customers have to pay more attention to the details of the contracts and be more careful when making decisions.
Tina, a funeral service provider who does not want to disclose her name, is uneasy about these kinds of practices. “Although the private columbaria seem to solve the immediate problem of supply, some of them involve deception,” she says. “They may deliberately hide or dilute the negative consequences of signing the contracts.”
Although the government provides lists of authorised columbaria online, she thinks that the listing system is confusing. The general public, especially the elderly, may rely on the advertisements of the columbaria, which is why they may fall prey to scams.
There are cases of some companies giving out urns for free to the needy. But Eddie Tse suspects there is more than charity at work here. He believes they are doing so to involve more people and to give them more bargaining chips to use as leverage in any negotiation with the government.
“Just like the case of Lehman Brothers, the people involved will step out to bargain with the government actively because their interests are harmed.” Tse says the businesses are banking on the government that it will handle their cases more leniently.
After strong opposition to the building of columbaria in some neighbourhoods, the government sought to fight the “not in my backyard” mentality by proposing to build public columbaria in all of Hong Kong’s 18 districts.
But Eddie Tse thinks that the root of the problem is the poor planning of the government, rather than the lack of columbaria spaces in Hong Kong. He says residents were opposed to plans that concentrated many death-related facilities in a single area. If facilities such as columbaria and crematoriums were spread in different districts, there would be less opposition from residents.
“It is actually a problem that can be solved within five to six districts, now it is actually spreading the problem to all districts,” says Tse.
From cradle to grave, finding shelter in this crowded city is a headache. It seems that the columbarium policy is still in a mess but one thing is clear: Hong Kongers just want a place they can call home, alive or dead.