Cover A public cemetery in Hong Kong, a city with limited space and resources for the dead. (Photo: Getty Images)

In a city where dying can be more expensive than living, why aren’t more people choosing to have a green burial?

A ferry departs from North Point’s eastern pier bound for an indistinct patch of sea. Once the destination has been reached, the ship’s engine dies down and passengers gather in small groups next to narrow wooden slides installed along the sides of the vessel. Some might say a few words, whisper a prayer, shed a tear, or hold a moment’s silence, before placing a biodegradable bag of ashes on the slide, letting it go, and watching as it slips beneath the waves. It’s a scene that plays out every Saturday morning—an act of sustainability, according to the government, which touts the disposing of ashes at sea as part of its campaign for greener practices around death and a solution for the city’s chronic shortage of space.

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There’s no escape from Hong Kong’s world-beating real estate prices, even for the dead. Being buried in a grave is now rare due to lack of space, yet the city has also run out of niches, or alcoves, to store funerary urns. One plot in a private cemetery with excellent feng shui can cost more than HK$1.5 million, and while public niches are significantly cheaper, there is up to a four-year waiting list, during which the ashes are stored in a funeral parlour. Of the 50,000 people who die each year in Hong Kong, 90 per cent are cremated, a process that, per body, uses the same amount of energy as an 800km car journey, and releases up to 400 kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to the UK-based Natural Death Centre. So-called “green burials”, which involve circumventing tussling for a pricey fixed niche by scattering ashes at designated spots for free, yet still involve the cremation process, are heavily incentivised by health authorities, albeit motivated more by preserving scarce land resources than by emission pollution. Despite the number of green burials rising each year, these methods still accounted for less than a fifth of the total funerals in 2020.

A burial is classed as green by the government when ashes are scattered either in one of two designated patches of sea—one to the west of the territory, the other to the east—or on land in a garden of remembrance (GoR), 13 of which are located at nine public columbaria, structures for the storage of cremated remains. However, sites like the Wo Hop Shek Garden of Remembrance in Diamond Hill are greatly underused. In a city where daily life is still underpinned by traditional beliefs and superstitions, and where discussing death is taboo, convincing people to choose these methods is challenging. Instead of concerns over green burials’ purported environmental benefits, their contradiction with people’s spiritual beliefs and widely practised traditions seems to be more of a deterrent.

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“You can’t scatter ashes like that,” says Carmen Yau, founder of the former Hong Kong chapter of Death Café, a non-profit organisation that originated in the UK to facilitate frank discussions around death. “People would think, if I scatter my mother’s ashes in the sea, she will be floating in the water forever. We believe people have spirit and soul, and if you scatter their ashes, their soul will fade; their spirit will be gone with the wind. The sea and gardens don’t really work for that reason. Families want the dead to have a proper home or shelter.”

However, the government points to growing uptake of green burials as a “paradigm shift” in the same way that cremation was almost unheard of in Hong Kong before 1980, yet became the norm after several decades. “These means of burial are conducive to the promotion of sustainable development and are also in line with the beliefs of beautiful life returning to nature,” writes Jackson Yiu, a senior health inspector at the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.

Only around a quarter of the Hong Kong population identifies as religious, yet when someone dies, families tend to default to Taoist rites, where paper is burnt to free the deceased’s spirit from the underworld. The government maintains that green burials can still fit with spiritual and religious beliefs, yet many citizens feel these options lack warmth and gravitas, and simultaneously deprive the spirit of a resting place and the family of a memorial site to visit on Hong Kong’s numerous public holidays dedicated to paying respects to the dead.

Yau was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic condition that affects the nervous system, and was told she would be lucky to make it to her 18th birthday, yet she turned 40 this year. Best known as a disability rights campaigner, she lectures in social work while pursuing a PhD in the UK, where she is currently based. However, an abiding awareness of her own mortality led her to encourage others to discuss and plan for death. Although Death Café Hong Kong is no longer active, she continues to offer ad hoc bereavement counselling services, and is intimately aware of the complicated knot of emotions that surround the dying of loved ones, and why government solutions need more heart. “Instead of simply thinking about costs and benefits, we need to think about whether this policy really fits the needs and the culture of the community,” she says.

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Yau is part of a small group of Hongkongers whose mission is to promote more progressive thinking and open discussion around death and dying. Dr Fan Ning, a surgeon and former president of Médecins Sans Frontières in Hong Kong, runs eco funeral service Forget Thee Not. The non-profit organisation offers greener alternatives like recycled cardboard coffins, reusable pouches for offerings, and silk flowers to mitigate the environmental impact of the funeral industry, such as trees equal to a forest four times the size of Victoria Park being felled each year to make coffins that are burnt. Fan says that only if people have been clear about their wishes can conversations be had about more sustainable end-of-life options.

“When people aren’t well-prepared, and have to face the stress of a dying person and things like the will, or financial or relationship factors, the environment will be their lowest priority,” he says. “So we advocate pre-planning for your health and care at the very last stage. When practical matters are settled, then we try to introduce environmental concern. A lot of elderly [people] buy it: they love our colourful coffins over traditional ones. But they need to declare their wishes so we can help them communicate with their families.”

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Yanki Lee, an architect, board member of the Chinese Permanent Cemeteries, and founder of non-profit design collective the Enable Foundation, believes that good design can bridge the gap between the practical and metaphysical. After seeing that mourners at GoRs were required to use metal canisters to scatter ashes, she set about designing one that would feel more human to use. In collaboration with Milk Design, her team came up with a large, white, cardboard origami envelope that opens to hold and disperse ashes through a narrow opening, then folds flat to either be burnt or taken home afterwards. Burning the vessel once empty aligns with Chinese tradition and gives a sense of finality and ceremony, Lee says. “People like the design of the envelope because it’s like they are holding their loved one with two hands.”

The envelope, currently used in five GoRs, is part of Fine Dying, an Enable project supported by the government that explores “the functional and emotional sides of end-of-life and burial services” and develops what it calls “objects of death”. The initiative was born out of focus groups that solicited ideas about death from design students and elderly Hongkongers, while simulating the ash-scattering process. Lee says, “If you look at the whole system in Hong Kong, burial falls under the health and hygiene department, which suggests that it is a problem to be solved; something to be cleaned up.”

Ire Tsui, an anthropologist, researcher and Enable’s head of communications, adds: “What if we could have a better journey of saying goodbye to our loved ones? What if, as designers, we can create better rituals or experience of death, [in ways that have] a more poetic feel?”

There’s also the matter of wanting to give the relative a grand send-off and not being seen to be scrimping on the details. A free ceremony where ashes are tossed off a boat or sprinkled onto the ground may not constitute a respectful tribute for those who buy into the idea of funerals being no-expenses-spared affairs, with extravagant floral arrangements, ornate coffins and released doves. “There are two schools of thought among the Hong Kong public,” Fan says. “One thinks green burials are very expensive because they think everything environmentally friendly isn’t cheap. But there’s another group who thinks if the coffin is not made of wood, it must be very cheap.”

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What’s clear is that the set-up for green burials needs refinement. Having fielded opinions during Death Café meetings, Yau concludes it’s not tradition holding people back from green burials—it’s that they just don’t feel meaningful enough. “People don’t really want a big funeral; they’d prefer something that will benefit the community.” She says that given a choice, people would prefer green coffin alternatives, such as being buried underneath a tree in a biodegradable pod, a method currently being trialled in Europe, as it would tie sustainability with a feeling of purposefulness. “Most said scattering in the sea or in a garden would just be like”—she makes a whooshing noise—“gone. They wanted something that would mark their existence.” She also suggests reef ball burials, where ashes are mixed with concrete and dropped onto the seabed to create a marine habitat and prevent erosion.

Fan meanwhile has visions of an entire island dedicated to the dead, inspired by Italy’s Cimitero di San Michele, a walled cemetery island in Venice established by Napoleon in the 19th century as a practical alternative to burying bodies under paving stones in areas that were prone to flooding. Fan says that as incongruous as it may sound, running a death-focused organisation is an extension of the lifelong care he provides to the public as a doctor.

“Being prepared helps ensure your life’s journey will be a complete story, and bring you and your family comfort and relief,” he says, adding the advice he gives to all: “Treasure every day. And plan for tomorrow.”


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