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Hong Kong Looks to Sea to Ease Cemetery Shortage

Millions of Chinese this week will visit cemeteries to mark Ching Ming or the "Grave Sweeping" Festival (April 5). In Hong Kong, overcrowded cemeteries and a growing elderly population are prompting the government to want to lift a ban on the scattering of human ashes at sea. But as VOA's Heda Bayron reports from Hong Kong, that still may not solve the problem.

In life and in death, Hong Kong people seem destined to be in packed spaces.

Like the city's iconic skyscrapers, graves rise up on terraces carved out of Hong Kong's hillsides. But space is running out in the city's 11 public cemeteries and the elderly population is growing.

So much so, the government is proposing to lift a 22-year-old ban on the scattering of human ashes at sea to ease the shortage.

The government says it is a practical alternative to overcrowding in cemeteries and columbaria, which are vaults with niches for urns containing cremated remains.

Most human remains are cremated in Hong Kong, where it is five times less expensive than a coffin burial.

Those currently wishing to cast ashes at sea have to travel outside Hong Kong's territorial waters. Chan Fuk-chi, of the Hong Kong Warm Heart funeral service company, arranges such trips for $300.

Chan says scattering ashes at sea is not popular with Hong Kong people. He estimates of the 40,000 people who die annually in Hong Kong, only 100 to 200 have their ashes scattered at sea.

Chan says the government would have to sell the idea to the public and educate people about its benefits.

That may be a tough sell.

Taoists, a major religious group in Hong Kong, do not approve of cremation. For many other Chinese, it is important to physically visit graves or niches of their ancestors to bring flowers, food offerings and burn incense, especially during the annual Ching Ming or "Grave Sweeping" festival celebrated this week.

While the government's plan deals with the immediate space needs, it does not address traditional remembrance, which many elderly Hong Kong residents, like this 70-year woman, say is important.

She says she would rather be buried in a grave, where her family members can visit her. She says she thinks sea burials may only appeal to the younger generation.