High Rise Apartments for the Dead
Not only the living but also the dead are housed in high-rise apartment buildings in Hong Kong. Most cemeteries have columbaria that have been constructed to store the ashes of the deceased. With space at a premium in this rapidly growing metropolis it has become necessary to find innovative but still respectful ways to bury one’s ancestors.
No new cemeteries have opened in Hong Kong since 1950 but most existing ones have built many storied columbaria where families can purchase a niche in the wall and place their loved ones ashes within. Each niche is covered with a marble plaque that features a photo of the deceased person and gold engravings that record their name, dates of birth and death and the site of their ancestral home. Each also has a ring in which you can place flowers. Columbaria can be up to nine stories high and contain as many as 20,000 separate niches for ashes.
Graveyards are always packed on Qingming and Chongyang, spring and fall festival days when schools and businesses close so families can visit the graves of their ancestors. One day I saw a bridal couple at a Hong Kong cemetery, resplendent in formal attire. It is quite common for brides and grooms to visit the cemetery on their wedding day to show respect to ancestors and ask them for good fortune.
When families go to the cemetery they bring brooms to sweep the grave and flowers to place in special vases on the tomb or in the rings in the columbaria. They may also buy paper money from vendors near the cemetery. They burn it in small fires on the tomb or on the floor of the columbaria. It is believed the smoke carries the money to heaven so the deceased may use it to buy things they need in the after life. On Qingming and Chongyang the air in Hong Kong is thick with the smoke from these fires.
Many of the older tombs are shaped like armchairs, since it is a piece of furniture that implies wealth, comfort and dignity. Some of these ‘armchairs’ are large enough to cover the bodies of men as well as their wives and concubines. The practice of having concubines was only made illegal in Hong Kong in 1971 so it is quite common to see older graves where they are buried with their masters.
The government of Hong Kong has been encouraging people to use cremation and columbaria since the 1960’s. By now nearly 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 is experiencing financial difficulties or illness it is because their ancestors have not been buried in the proper location. It is not at all uncommon for bodies to be moved after six or seven years to try to bring about a change in family fortune. It is much easier to relocate ashes from one niche to another in a columbaria than to unearth a body from an underground tomb to bury it in a different grave.
There are very few private single dwelling homes in Hong Kong. Virtually everyone lives in an apartment building with hundreds of other families. This is true not only for the living people of Hong Kong, but for the dead as well.