27 October 2016
Cemeteries in Guangdong are filling up, and space is becoming expensive. Photo: Panoramio
Cemeteries in Guangdong are filling up, and space is becoming expensive. Photo: Panoramio

Guangdong running out of space for dead Hongkongers

It is increasingly difficult for Hongkongers to find a resting place after they pass away.

And the Guangdong option is becoming harder too, because of a lack of space, soaring prices and controls over who may repose in the province after death.

The number of applications for a small niche in a columbarium in Hong Kong almost doubled to 23,235 last year from 2010, and the average waiting time rose from two-and-a-half years to four-and-a-half.

While people wait for a permanent resting place for their loved one, they must pay HK$80 a month to keep the ashes in temporary storage.

Guangdong used to be a cheap and convenient alternative – but no longer.

Prices for permanent burial sites in the province have jumped several-fold during the last decade.

The problem is that the burial industry is like other sectors of the economy; its prices have risen just like those of other services.

A decade ago, many Hongkongers could afford a well-appointed tombstone or resting space in their ancestral home or other city in Guangdong convenient to them – but no longer.

This price inflation has hit cities all over China.

In Beijing, the average price at a local cemetery has reached 70,000 yuan (US$11,300) for a site between 0.8 square meter and 1 square meter in size – more than the average annual income of 69,521 yuan for a city resident in 2013.

A site in a high-end cemetery in the capital costs more than 200,000 yuan.

Beijingers say with black humor that it is more expensive to die than to live.

In Guangzhou, the price of an average cemetery plot is about 80,000 yuan per square metre.

The city’s Jinzhong Permanent Cemetery in Huadu district sells plots for between 60,000 yuan and 100,000 yuan.

A survey of cemeteries in the Pearl River Delta published by the Southern Metropolitan Daily on Tuesday found that prices in Shenzhen were higher than those in Guangzhou, averaging 110,000 yuan per square metre, with an additional annual fee for an employee of the cemetery to take care of the site.

Zhuhai is cheaper, with prices ranging from 12,600 yuan to 45,360 yuan.

In Foshan, prices for locals range from 10,000 yuan to 40,000 yuan, reaching 60,000 yuan for the highest-class plots.

There is a shortage of land in Foshan for local people.

So the city’s largest private cemetery, in Shunde, is charging non-locals at least double, and up to 240,000 yuan for the most desirable plots.

It is the same situation in Zhongshan. Since 2012, that city’s main private cemetery has been selling plots only for locals or people of Zhongshan origin resident in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and overseas.

Huizhou, Dongguan and Zhuhai do not impose such restrictions.

Shenzhen has only 100,000 spaces left and will run out within 10 years, Du Peng, head of the city’s Civil Affairs Bureau, declared.

“We will try to increase the number but are short of land and are limited in what we can do,” Du said.

“The traditional concept is for the ‘leaves to return to their roots’, but we should change this idea and spread the idea of environmentalism.”

So the city government is promoting “sea burials” and “tree burials”.

It started to organise sea burials in 1997 — in which ashes are scattered over the waves — and has performed 35,577 since then.

It started to organise tree burials — in which ashes are scattered over plants — in 2008 and has since performed 360.

Official figures show that Guangzhou is cremating 60,000 people year.

The families of 10 per cent ask that the ashes be buried, while the others choose to have them scattered at sea, over flowers or trees or placed in a columbarium.

People in Foshan are more traditional.

According to figures from the city’s Civil Affairs Bureau, it cremated 28,000 people last year, of whom 21,000 had Foshan registrations; the families of more than 10,0000 of these asked for the ashes to be buried.

All this is bad news for Hongkongers.

Only a minority can accept the “environmental” options promoted by Du. These are the cheapest and more convenient – but the loved one is lost for ever without trace.

A majority of Hongkongers want the opportunity to honour their loved ones during the Ching Ming festival and at other times during the year.

In future, it is only going to becoming more difficult and more costly.

Perhaps the city will become like Beijing – where it is more expensive to die than to live.

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Hong Kong-based journalist and author. He had worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.

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