In the heart of Hong Kong, a city known for its bustling streets and soaring skyscrapers, a remarkable structure stands tall, resembling a luxury hotel rather than what it truly is—a sanctuary for the departed.
With its opulent chandeliers and pristine white marble foyer, this 12-storey tower offers a unique proposition to the residents of Hong Kong: a final resting place amidst the chaos of one of the world's most densely populated cities.
Hong Kong, home to 7.3 million people, grapples with the challenge of accommodating its residents in limited space. In the past, grieving families faced a daunting wait, sometimes stretching several years, to secure a spot for their loved ones' ashes.
Hong Kong Urn Space Crisis
Opened just last month, the Shan Sum Columbarium plans to provide 23,000 niches for funeral urns, representing the government's decade-long initiative to involve private companies in addressing the pressing challenges facing the deathcare sector.
This proactive policy is a direct response to the alarming shortage of urn space caused by Hong Kong's ageing population, which propelled death rates above the government's capacity in the mid-2010s.
To address this crisis, renowned German architect Ulrich Kirchhoff, aged 52, lent his expertise to design the sleek and modern building. In an interview with AFP, Kirchhoff revealed his vision of blending elements of nature into this high-density space, creating a sense of a "neighbourhood village."
Apartment For The Dead
The inspiration for Kirchhoff's design stems from traditional Chinese graveyards, often nestled on mountainsides. He incorporated the undulating lines, greenery, and textures of hewn rock that characterise these ancestral resting places. Within the Shan Sum columbarium, ornate compartments, some as small as 26 by 34 centimeters (10 by 13 inches), provide a home for the ashes. These compartments are neatly arranged along the walls of air-conditioned chambers, ensuring a serene environment.
Kirchhoff's attention to detail extends to each floor of the columbarium, where intimate rooms foster a sense of connection and dignity, a marked contrast to the cramped quarters of public columbariums that can feel like impersonal "warehouses."
However, much like apartments in Hong Kong, these resting places come with a hefty price tag, rendering them unattainable for most people. The basic two-person option at Shan Sum is priced at 58,000 dollars, while the top-tier package, suitable for an entire family, reaches a staggering 3 million dollars. It is worth noting that the median monthly household income in Hong Kong currently stands at approximately 3,800 dollars, according to government data. The issue of affordability poses a significant challenge for many families seeking suitable final resting places for their loved ones.
Spaces like the Shan Sum Columbarium emerged a decade ago in response to Hong Kong's urn space shortage. In previous years, cremated remains were often stored in funeral parlour drawers for extended periods while waiting for availability, or they found a temporary home in unlicensed columbariums located within temples or refurbished factory buildings.
Historian Chau Chi-Fung, who penned a book on Hong Kong's funeral practices, revealed that the seeds of this crisis were sown by the British colonial administration long before the city's handover to China in 1997. Chau highlighted that while the government had strict regulations regarding the treatment of dead bodies, a comprehensive policy for cremated remains was lacking.
The shift towards cremation, popularised in the 1960s, stemmed from the changing social mores of Hong Kong's ethnic Chinese population. This cultural transformation mirrored trends observed in dense urban centres across Asia. Today, nearly 95 percent of Hong Kong's deceased undergo cremation annually—a statistic attributed to evolving customs.
To prepare for the projected 14 percent increase in annual deaths to 61,100 by 2031, Hong Kong officials assert that the city is equipped to handle the upturn. They highlight that approximately 25 percent of the current 425,000 public columbarium spots remain vacant, with additional public and private supply in the pipeline.
In the ever-evolving landscape of Hong Kong, the Shan Sum Columbarium stands as a symbol of innovation and adaptability. As Hong Kong continues to grapple with the complexities of urban life, affordability remains a barrier to offer more options to the bereaved.