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Hong Kong Apartments For the Dead
Not only the living, but also the dead are housed in high-rise residential buildings in Hong Kong. I visited a cemetery near my house and saw a columbarium built there to store the ashes of the deceased. With limited space in this fast-growing metropolis, it became necessary to find innovative yet still respectful ways to bury the ancestors. No new cemeteries have opened in Hong Kong since 1950, but most of the existing ones have built a multi-story columbarium where families can buy a niche in the wall and place their loved ones’ ashes in it. Each niche is covered with a marble slab with a photograph of the deceased person and gold engravings detailing the name, date of birth and death and the place where their ancestors were. Each one has a ring in which you can put flowers. Columbaria can be up to nine stories high and contain as many as 20,000 separate niches for ashes.
Cemeteries are always packed on Qingming and Chongyang, the spring and autumn holidays when schools and businesses close so families can visit their ancestors’ graves. The day I went to the cemetery was not a holiday, just an ordinary Sunday. Many groups of people still paid their respects at the older graves and at the niches in the more modern columbaria. There I saw a wedding couple, resplendent in formal attire. I later read that it is quite common for brides and grooms to visit a cemetery on their wedding day to pay their respects to their ancestors and ask them for good luck.
When families go to the cemetery, they bring brooms to sweep the grave and flowers that they place in special vases on the grave or in rings in the columbarium. They can also buy paper money from vendors near the cemetery. They burn it in small fires on the grave or on the floor of the columbarium. It is believed that the smoke carries money to heaven so that the deceased can use it to buy things they need in the afterlife. At Qingming and Chongyang, the air in Hong Kong is thick with smoke from these fires.
Most of the older tombs in the cemetery that I visited were in the form of armchairs, since it is a piece of furniture that implies wealth, comfort and dignity. Some of these ‘armchairs’ were large enough to cover the bodies of the men as well as their wives and concubines. The practice of concubines was only banned in Hong Kong in 1971, so it is quite common to see older graves where they are buried with their masters.
The Hong Kong government has encouraged cremation and columbaria since the 1960s. So far, almost 70% of families choose this option. One of the reasons this method has become so popular is that cremated remains are much easier to move. Many people in Hong Kong believe that if a family has financial difficulties or illnesses, it is because their ancestors were not buried in the proper place. It is not at all unusual for bodies to be moved after six or seven years to try to change the family’s fortunes. It is much easier to move ashes from one niche to another in a columbarium than to dig up a body from an underground tomb and bury it in another grave.
There are very few private housing units in Hong Kong. Almost everyone lives in an apartment building with hundreds of other people. This is not only true for the living people in Hong Kong, but now it is also true for the dead.
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