Grave shortage: in HK, it costs more to house the dead than the living

HONG KONG Wed Jun 4, 2014 10:33am IST

Headstones stand at a cemetery surrounded by residential flats in downtown Hong Kong May 29, 2014. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/Files

Headstones stand at a cemetery surrounded by residential flats in downtown Hong Kong May 29, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip/Files

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HONG KONG (Reuters) - There's one thing even Hong Kong's more than 40 billionaires will struggle to buy - a final resting place on their home turf.

Land shortages in the late 1970s forced Hong Kong to ban construction of new permanent burial sites, and public cemeteries were ordered to ensure the remains of the deceased be exhumed and cremated after six years to make way for newcomers.

The policy has done little to alleviate the grave shortage in a city where more than 40,000 people die each year.

Some can get lucky if relatives choose to have the remains of a loved one removed from a public burial site to be cremated, opening the prized permanent space to a lottery system, but plots may only come available every few years.

The only other way is if the deceased is a member of a church that has a private graveyard with a plot available, a very rare instance that can cost up to HK$3 million ($386,900).

"In Hong Kong, people cannot buy a final resting place even if they have all the money in the world," said Hoi Pong Kwok, funeral director at Heung Fok Undertaker.

"The government doesn't just have to settle housing needs for the living. It also needs to address those of the dead."

In land-hungry Hong Kong, where more than 7 million people are packed into just 30 percent of the territory, failure to vacate a plot after six years means bodies will be exhumed by the government, cremated and put in a communal grave.

While the funeral policy has resulted in a surge in the number of people being cremated - 90 percent of the city's dead were cremated in 2013, up from 38 percent in 1975 - cremation is by no means the answer for those seeking a resting place.

WAITING GAME

Securing a niche in a public columbarium - a drab concrete structure where urns are placed - can take up to five years and there are officially more than 21,800 deceased on the waiting list for a space, which costs more than HK$3,000.

Funeral service providers say there are a further 100,000 jars of remains stored in funeral homes or at funeral companies across the city, some of which are also waiting for plots.

Those who can't stand the wait must pay as much as HK$1 million ($129,000) for a niche about the size of a sheet of A4 paper in a privately owned crematorium.

At Lung Shan Temple in Fanling district, a private plot measuring 63 square inches (0.04 square metres) with "the most auspicious position" costs HK$1.8 million.

With a luxury home in Hong Kong costing roughly HK$151,389 per square metre, that means it's more expensive to house the dead than the living.

"You have the green dragon on the left and the white tiger on the right," said an agent surnamed Tang, describing the supreme "feng shui" of the high-end niche.

A HOME AWAY FROM HOME

"Permanent burial sites are not available any more. We don't even have enough space for the living," said Barry Law, sales manager at Fortune Wealth Memorial Park Ltd.

As the shortage shows no signs of easing, some funeral service providers see big opportunities in the city's ageing wealthy.

Midas International Holdings Ltd, which has a market value of $48 million, and Sage International Group Ltd, with a market capitalisation of $10 million, are promoting graveyards in nearby mainland China and Macau.

"Usually they will go to mainland China because there are some very expensive and nice places for them," said Betsy Ma, sales and marketing director at Sage International.

Ma said prices for permanent burial sites in southern China's Guangdong province - just across the border from Hong Kong - had jumped at least 10 times over the past decade to about 200,000 yuan ($32,000). For a permanent burial plot in Macau - just an hour by ferry from the former British colony - a plot can fetch at least HK$1 million.

Fortune Wealth Memorial Park, backed by Chuang's Consortium International Ltd, is planning to expand its 500-acre (200-hectare) cemetery in Guangdong's Sihui city by 10 times as it targets Hong Kong clients.

In Hong Kong, even death provides little relief from the city's sky-high property prices.

"It's not easy to afford a piece of land in Hong Kong, even after death," Kwok said.

($1 = 7.7538 Hong Kong Dollars)

($1 = 6.2556 Chinese Yuan)

(Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Stephen Coates)

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