Even the Dead Live in High-Rises

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Cemetery in Macau

Every time I take the bus through the Aberdeen Tunnel, emerging in Happy Valley outside Hong Kong’s oldest burial grounds, I marvel at the tombstones of the Catholic cemetery, jostling for space and attention beneath the gaze of a copper-domed mausoleum. The scene makes me think of the multitude of greystone Catholic religious structures in Montreal, but I’m also fascinated because it represents something so rare in Hong Kong: a real cemetery with distinct gravestones and tombs. It’s rare because, in death as in life, most people in Hong Kong live in anonymous high-rises.

If you think about it, cemeteries are an extraordinary waste of space, especially in a city like Hong Kong where space is the most precious commodity of all. In the 1980s, cemetery space ran out, people here stopped burying their dead; cremation became the norm, and urns were stored in vast columbaria. Now even columbarium space is at a premium. Devious landowners in the New Territories build illegal columbaria for desperate families; the government has even promoted the idea of burials at sea.

Visiting one of the big cemeteries-cum-columbaria can be an interesting experience. For practical reasons as well as feng shui (the dead need good fortune in the afterlife, after all), most of them are built on terraced hillsides, giving them spectacular views over the city and ocean. It can be strangely intriguing to read the names and dates on each niche — a kind of eerie voyeurism made all the more captivating by the local tradition of decorating niches with photos of the deceased. Compared to the normal experience of exploring a cemetery, it’s a bit like reading an apartment building directory.

Columbarium niches in Macau:

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Columbarium niches in Hong Kong:

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This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Friday August 24 2012at 12:08 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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