International Asia No more land space even for the dead in Hong Kong; in...

No more land space even for the dead in Hong Kong; in Singapore, graves are dug to make way for roads, malls, and houses

Land scarcity in both countries have resurrected the question: "Are the “needs” of the dead more important than those of the living?"




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In Hong Kong, both the living and the dead are beleaguered with the problem of a shrinking land space.

With the rapidly increasing population and continuing requirements for urbanisation, people are in constant search for a place to stay.

Based on United Nations data, as of April 24, 2019, the population of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China has reached 7,479,038. The total land area is 1,050 Km2 (405 sq. miles) and 100% of its population is urban.

According to Kwok Hoi Pong, chairman of the Hong Kong Funeral Business Association, “it has become more expensive to house the dead than the living. A niche for an urn in a private columbarium in the best position can cost up to HK$1.8m.”

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A ground burial plot can cost anywhere between HK$3m (£300,000) and HK$5m, but in the city’s congested cemeteries, vacancies rarely become available. Land is so scarce that 90% of the 48,000 people a year who die in Hong Kong are cremated. But, the worst part is that it has become increasingly difficult, in fact, impossible, to even find space to store 9ashes after the body has been cremated.

A standard niche at a public columbarium costs HK$2,800 – however, the waiting time for a space is over four years. Those who are not prepared to wait must pay out considerably more for a niche in a privately owned columbarium – a space no bigger than a shoebox. With the most expensive residential property in Hong Kong selling for HK$180,000 per sq ft, it costs more to house the dead than the living.

Ingenuity vs. Lack of space

To meet demand, there was a need to get creative. In 2012, the design consultancy Bread Studio put forward a plan to turn an ocean liner into a cemetery called Floating Eternity with space for 370,000 sets of ashes. A similar proposal in 2016 sought investors for a plan to convert a cruise ship into a floating columbarium with restaurants, a hotel and space for 48,000 urns.

In the meantime, the government’s Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has spent the last decade trying to promote green burials. It has not been an easy sell since the act of scattering ashes at gardens of remembrance or at sea conflicts with established Chinese beliefs about honoring the dead.

“Soon the only option will be green burial or storing ashes at home,” says Kwok. “People will no longer have a choice. The reality is that we’re running out of space in Hong Kong, even for the dead.”

Also no rest for the dead in Singapore

With approximately 5.6 million people in an area three-fifths the size of New York City, and with the population projected to grow to 6.9 million by 2030, Singapore is also running out of space.

The island nation has long retrieved land from the sea, and plans to move more of its transport, utilities and storage underground to free up space for housing, offices and greenery have long been underway.

In a statement, the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said “Planning for long-term land use in land-scarce Singapore often requires us to make difficult decisions.”

One such decision was to clear dozens of cemeteries to give way for homes, highways, air bases, and malls.

Are the “needs” of the living more important than the dead?

Over 3,700 of the 100,000 graves in Bukit Brown cemetery have now been exhumed, to make way for an eight-lane highway that will cut the cemetery in half.

However, this isn’t a new thing in Singapore. Hundreds of thousands of bodies have already been hauled up from the ground to pave the way for malls, roads and apartment blocks. The entire city-state of Singapore covers a meager 71,830 hectares, less than half the size of Greater London, so land is always scarce. But with increasing population, the shifting demographics, and the need for rapid urbanization, the needs of the dead will have to give way to that of the living.

Authorities who conducted the digging at Bukit Brown said that it will ease congestion from the Pan-Island Expressway, the first step towards further development of the area. There is even a plan from the Ministry of National Development (MND) to convert all of Bukit Brown into housing by 2030. According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), the exhumed remains will either be reinterred in smaller plots, or will be cremated, Relatives can then visit their ancestors at the shared plots or at various columbaria.

Another cemetery where huge exhumations were done was in Chua Chu Kang with graves buried between 1947 to 1975. Relatives had been asked to claim the remains of family members before the end of July 2016.

The country’s political leaders cited the challenge of balancing competing urban interests. In a statement, an MND spokesperson said: “The government needs to prioritise the use of our land for various needs such as housing, green spaces, utilities, transportation, ports and airports and amenities to support the functions of a nation.”

Would this mean the dead will have to find its own resting place?

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