21 May 2019
Most Hong Kong people still prefer traditional wooden coffins for funerals of their loved ones, even as green groups are urging the use of other options.
Most Hong Kong people still prefer traditional wooden coffins for funerals of their loved ones, even as green groups are urging the use of other options.

Promoting green burials in Hong Kong

In his policy address this year, Hong Kong’s leader Leung Chun-ying has outlined a proposal for construction of columbarium facilities on several chosen sites and promoting “green burials”.

Green burial is a concept that has been advocated by social enterprises and the private business sector for a long time. In particular, there has been much emphasis on promoting the use of environmentally friendly coffins. However, the use of these coffins has never been popular among the public, and many bereaved families simply aren’t in favor of the idea totally.

According to government statistics, a total of 40000 people died in Hong Kong last year, and it is estimated that the annual number will double by 2040. No matter whether people choose ground burial or cremation, they will need a coffin, which often weighs up to 60 kg. When the funeral is over, the coffin will be either burnt in cremation or be allowed to decompose under the ground.

Based on the above figures, we need to import somewhere between 2400 to 4800 tons of timber every year in order to meet the local demand for conventional wooden coffins. That means hundreds of thousands of trees will be cut down every year.

If more people in Hong Kong are willing to use coffins made of paper or cardboard instead of wood, we will be able to save a lot of trees. Environmental protection is among the core values of Hong Kong people, and the use of environmentally friendly coffins is in line with our core values.

In fact the government has already given the green light for the use of paper-made coffins. The Food & Environmental Hygiene Department has issued guidelines that require funeral house operators to provide both wooden and paper-made coffins for their clients to choose from.

However, environmentalists still encounter a lot of difficulties in promoting the use of paper-made coffins. One of the difficulties is the attitude of the bereaved family members.

In recent years an average of 2000 paper-made coffins were being supplied in Hong Kong annually, mostly to grass-roots families. However, probably out of a sense of filial duty, many bereaved middle-class or wealthy families often prefer a grander, more ceremonious or religious funeral to show respect for their ancestors, and paper-made coffins are often considered less formal and respectful.

In some cases, even if the elderly had been in favor of the use of environmentally-friendly coffins for their funerals, the bereaved families still prefer to follow the traditional way when it comes to the choice of coffins. As the departed may not have left any written instructions about their wish, their children would opt for the traditional coffins.

In order to promote the use of paper-made coffins and minimize the possibility of disputes among family members regarding the choice of coffins, perhaps the current policy on organ donors can offer us some insights into how we can promote green burials and make sure the wishes of a dying person regarding the form of their funeral and choice of coffins will be faithfully fulfilled after their demise.

Organ donation has been practiced in Hong Kong since the 1960s. In 2008 the Department of Health established the Centralized Organ Donation Register (CODR) to make it more convenient for citizens to officially register their wishes to donate their organs after death, and to guarantee that their wishes will be carried out despite the possible objection from their bereaved family members. As of February 2015, more than 160,000 people had been registered on the CODR list.

Given the successful experience of the CODR, it would probably be a good idea if the government can establish a similar central register, under which citizens regardless of their age or physical health condition can register their wish for green burials after their death, such as using paper-made coffins at their funerals and scattering the ashes at sea or in the Gardens of Remembrance, so that the bereaved family members can carry out the wishes.

The above suggestion falls within the jurisdictions of both the Hospital Authority and the Food & Environmental Hygiene Department. With better liaison and coordination, there shouldn’t be much difficulty in implementing it.

If more people prefer paper-made coffins to traditional wooden coffins, carbon emission and timber consumption can both be reduced significantly, and the bereaved families can also face less stress and strain in organizing the funerals of their beloved ones.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 28.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Vice President

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