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.