Monday, April 20, 2009

In Hong Kong, Even the Dead Wait in Line

Source: Time

In Hong Kong, it can be hard just finding somewhere to sit down. In the fourth most densely populated place in the world, park benches are packed and strangers share tables at restaurants. But for the 40,000 people who die here every year, it turns out there's no respite from the crowds, even in the afterlife. While a land shortage forced Hong Kongers to give up on burials long ago — only 11% of bodies were buried in 2007 — the city has also run out of space for cremated ashes. By some estimates, that means roughly 50,000 families must store their relatives' remains in funeral homes and offices while they wait — often for years — to secure a 1-sq.-ft. resting place.

On April 14, the government began accepting applications for new cremation niches at its Diamond Hill columbarium, a massive nine-story building that stores cremation urns. The 18,500 new niches, the largest new public supply in almost a decade, compelled nearly 1,000 people to line up outside the columbarium office to personally submit their applications on opening day. "Hopefully this time I'll find a place for my father so he can finally rest," said Raymond Wong, who waited in line with his mother for three hours before turning in their paperwork. After his father passed away in December, Wong applied for a new niche at another of the city's public columbaria, but was turned away after the spaces quickly filled up. Says Wong's mother, Oi Tak Lo, "When we find a place for him, I will be at ease."

Though the government plans to release 37,000 new niches by 2012, that supply will only meet the demands of one year's cremations. By 2016, up to half of the people who die every year won't be able to find a niche in public columbaria or their pricier private counterparts, according to government estimates. While a limited number of used niches open up from time to time, the wait can last longer than four years, and there are already 9,500 people on the waiting list.

For wealthy families, burial is still an option. Permanent plots are scarce and can cost upwards of $30,000. For roughly $3,000, temporary plots can be rented from the government for 10 years, after which the family can renew for another decade, or exhume the remains and yield the plot to someone else. Jockeying for burial space has become so intense that last year, 18 cemetery supervisors were arrested for allegedly accepting bribes in order to exhume remains before they had fully decomposed. Families with overseas relatives have sent bodies abroad to bury, particularly in the U.S. and Canada, or looked across the border to China's graveyards, but the journey to visit such graves can be taxing for older relatives.

Even though I follow all the traditions, I always wondered the importance of visiting cemetaries on the correct days. I know it's important but I've seen these types of disputes tear families apart. Where to bury, division of funeral costs, who visits when, who hosts the death-anniversary banquet etc etc. Alot of times, when the parents are alive, nobody gives a shit about them, but when they die, there's this big struggle over how things are supposed to be done. Siblings who never talk to each other, will argue over how their parents are treated, WHEN DEAD!

For example, I know familes that have never been to a buddhist temple but when a parent dies, seeks out the temple for a proper ceremony and then critizes the temple for a poorly done ceremony. Well you never cared about the temple, why should the temple give you a spectacular ceremony?

Why is what happens after you die important? I have an aunt whose husband just died. The kids want to buy two plots of burial land so that one day they can bu buried together. Mom refuses, saying it's a bad omen. Kids say that they have to get the land together now or there's no guarantee that it will be possible to be together later on. What if she doesn't die in another 10 years. But mom refuses, can't buy land now and must make sure when she dies, they are buried together or she will come back and haunt the kids.

What do the kids do? Siblings start to fight or course, both with mom and with each other.

Seems so pointless to me sometimes.

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