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Friday, August 8, 2014, 12:46

Set in stone

By Ming Yeung

Diana Wong is decided. For an 86-year-old woman who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, Wong talks about her funeral arrangements rather casually. Her four children are well-settled. Wong would leave this world worry-free when the moment arrived.

However, Wong, a widow, is not too keen on having her ashes interred in a columbarium vault. First, it’s rather costly. And second, such an arrangement would require two of her children who live abroad to return to Hong Kong from time to time to pay their respects. She would rather have her ashes made into four diamonds and passed on to her progenies.

The suggestion came from Wong’s longtime friend who passed away last year. He had chosen a similar “remembrance diamond” for his spouse. Algordanza, a Swiss company and the only one of its kind in Hong Kong, have been making remembrance diamonds since 2008.

Set in stone


Dust to diamond

The ashes-to-diamond process is fairly straightforward, said Scott Fong, director of Algordanza’s Hong Kong chapter. The company sends 500 grams of the deceased person’s ashes to its laboratory in Switzerland. They have the carbon that’s at least 99 percent pure filtered out and processed into silky, black graphite. A machine is used to treat the material to volcanic pressure and temperature, leading to the formation of synthetic diamonds. The color is bluish rather than a clear tint, owing to the presence of boron.

A quarter-carat diamond retails for about HK$34,000, Fong said. A two-carat diamond, the biggest that Algordanza makes, costs about HK$450,000. That’s excluding the price of the metal in which it would be set and the design of the jewelry.

Meanwhile the SAR government is trying to push forward a long-awaited new Private Columbaria Bill — which intends to regulate the increasing number of unauthorized columbaria. Some lawmakers have been wondering if diamonds made from a deceased’s ashes would, ultimately, land up in a columbarium.

Fong, however, says, “If someone has a memorial diamond made, he will keep it rather than putting it in a vault, in the custody of a third party. In fact, 80 percent of them will wear it.”

One of Fong’s clients was a father who badly wished to be with his daughters when they got married, but went before the happy events could take place. To fulfill his dream, the mother got his ashes converted into two diamond pendants for her daughters to wear on their wedding day.

“In fact our competition is with those offering columbarium service, as the cost of storing a deceased’s ashes is much more than storing it in the form of a diamond,” Fong remarked.

The market for memorial diamonds, feels Fong, will keep growing as people like the idea of turning a loved one’s ashes into a family heirloom. “Elderly people often worry if their progeny will care to visit the ancestors’ tombs on Qing Ming day in the future. The diamond, at least, could be handed down from generation to generation, the story behind it explained to the person who inherits it, so that it could be told similarly to others in the future,” he said.

Business has seen double-digit growth year-on-year, a major reason being the scarcity of burial sites and columbarium vaults, said Fong.  

Taken too soon

“The government had vigorously promoted cremation in the 1970s, building a surplus number of columbarium facilities,” said Richard Chan, Principal of Luk Fook Funeral College. “However, since 1997, due to administrative irregularities and transfer of ministers, besides the lack of a population policy, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), which was entrusted with the job, did not have a sound long-term policy in place.”

Given about 40,000 people in Hong Kong die every year, the surplus columbarium slots are now full. According to the Census and Statistics Department, there will be around 233,600 more dead and 215,875 cremations by 2018.

Given the paucity of public columbarium vaults, people are turning to monasteries having a facility of storing the ashes of religious believers.

“Gradually, entrepreneurs began to see the market potential of developing these monasteries. Since supply fell short of the demand, people turned to private operators. Columbarium vaults were being sold at prices that were nothing short of extortion,” Chan commented.

Columbarium vaults began to appear in residential and industrial buildings. Neighbors found it a nuisance, to say nothing of safety issues, especially during the Spring and Autumn tomb-sweeping festivals. Plus, there is lack of accountability.

“Imagine a businessman built a wall to store 1,000 columbaria and each sold for more than HK$10,000. When he had sold them all he would have no business hanging around,” said Chan.

In 2011 and 2012, the Consumer Council received 25 complaints concerning unauthorized columbarium operators.

Set in stone
Food and Health secretary Ko Wing-man (in white shirt) requests greater sensitivity on the part of the Legislative Council as they push for a new Private Columbaria Bill.  
According to the law, a private columbarium that has been in use before January 1990, and ceased selling or letting out new or unoccupied niches from 8 am on 18 June 2014, are liable to get an exemption from obtaining a license granted by the Private Columbaria Licensing Board. The provision, feels Tse Sai-kit, convener of the Alliance for Concern over Columbarium Policy, might be misused by owners of private columbaria that have existed for years in illegally occupied government land to get an exemption.

In 2008, a development company cut down a forest inside a geo park and built an underground columbarium for storing 3,000 niches. The Lands Department sent several letters of warning, to no avail. Finally, the land was reclaimed by the government. And this was by no means an isolated incident.

As some of the existing private columbaria have failed to fully comply with the prevailing statutory and government requirements, a pre-bill columbarium operator seeking a license or exemption may apply to the Licensing Board for temporary suspension of liability until such time as the requirements are met. Depending on the merit of the application, one might get a three-year exemption, extendable to another three years at the most.  

But Richard Chan says the Bill does not address the problem of temporary storage of niches, or “hotel for the deceased”, which are normally set inside coffin shops. These facilities are operated both by licensed undertakers of burials and unauthorized operators. There is concern over how the government might be able to bring all unauthorized storage under the rule of law after the transitional period.

“The law only addresses the problem of permanent columbaria. Between permanent and temporary, there is a grey area,” Chan stressed. “Also, starting December 2008, all new applications seeking undertakers’ license are subject to a restriction on storing of remains. It is one of the conditions for granting a license.”

Calling such a requirement “uncivil”, Chan said there are fewer undertakers of burials being able to provide temporary storage and this would confuse consumers.

Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man earlier told the Legislative Council: “If the authorities are not sensitive enough, the community will have to face a massive displacement of interred ashes after the commencement of the bill. Dislodging the deceased from their resting place will cause social disturbance and discord. We must be pragmatic in handling the columbaria which existed before the commencement of the licensing scheme.”

According to the government, in another five years, the FEHD will have allocated some 30,500 vaults and another 1,000 new ones will be available in the soon-to-be-completed Cheung Chau Cemetery extension.

Meanwhile, the cemeteries operated by religious institutions (including the Catholics, Christians and Buddhists) are expected to provide, in total, about 50,260 new niches, besides the 28,400 that are yet to be allocated.

“We see this legislation as a first step towards better regulation of columbarium operations and the law has to be fine-tuned from time to time,” Chan said.

Although more vaults are now being made available, Chan encouraged people to consider sea funerals, remembrance gardens, or other kinds of environment-friendly funeral options.

“We all know that the number of dead people surpass that of the living. If each one of us occupies a space after we die, the world will be a space for the dead and not the living.”

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