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.
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.
“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.”