Apartments For The Dead

Last night we had dinner guests, and perhaps because Dave and I had just returned from attending a funeral, the conversation over dessert and coffee turned to planning for funerals and burial. We were surprised to learn that one of the couples, who are even younger than we are, had purchased burial plots in a local cemetery. They did this after one of their own parents had died, and arranging for a place of burial had been just one added difficulty to deal with as they made funeral arrangements. Several of our dinner guests said they wanted to be cremated, but weren’t sure if they wanted their ashes spread out somewhere or buried. I told them that in Hong Kong, the government provides cremation services at public crematoriums and although it is still possible to have coffin burials, in public cemeteries they may only be for six years, after which the remains must be exhumed and cremated. If the family doesn’t arrange for it themselves the government will do so. 


Most people in Hong Kong are buried in columbaria, a kind of high-rise apartment for the dead, which have been built in cemeteries throughout the city. Here families can purchase a niche in the wall and place their loved ones ashes within. Each niche is covered with a marble plaque that features a picture of the deceased person and gold engravings detailing their name, date of birth and death, and the site of their ancestral home. Each also has a ring in which you can place flowers. Columbaria can be up to nine stories high and contain as many as 20,000 separate niches for ashes.

The government, which is facing a crisis when it comes to having enough land on which to build cemetaries,  has been urging people to use columbaria since the 1960’s and so most people do, primarily because, according to an article in Time magazine,  a permanent burial space in Hong Kong, in a private cemetary runs around US $30,000. Our dinner guests last night had paid only $700 for their plot here in Canada. 

One of the things we talked about last night, was that for families it is nice to have a certain site to go and visit after someone dies. If you are cremated and your ashes spread out, rather than buried, there is no such site where family can go and pay their respects. I remember at a family reunion many years ago, our large clan went to the graveyard where my grandparents are buried, and we spread out blankets near their burial plots, for all their great-grandchildren to sit on. One of my aunts told the children stories about their great-grandparents. It was very meaningful. 

In Hong Kong there are spring and summer festival days called Qingming and Chongyang when schools and businesses are closed so families can visit their ancestors’ graves. These are called grave sweeping holidays because traditionally the family brought brooms to sweep the grave clean of leaves and other debris. Now they place flowers at the site and sometimes buy paper money from vendors near the cemetery. They burn it in small fires on the tomb or on the floor of the columbaria. It is believed the smoke carries the money to heaven so the deceased may use it to buy things they need in the after life. In order for these kind of traditional rituals to carry on it is important to have an actual burial site, even for ashes. 

Writing about it this morning, our dinner party conversation about burial plots last night seems strange and even a bit morbid, but I guess as you enter retirement and ponder what’s next, perhaps giving some thought to your end of life arrangements is prudent and natural. 

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Filed under Hong Kong, Reflections, Retirement

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