Vanishing act: Hong Kong’s 6-year cemetery laws are guaranteed to spook you this Halloween

Let’s face it, we all love a good fright night. And with the spookiest night of the year bearing down upon us, the spirits are stirring. Considering the way some of them are treated, we can hardly say we blame them. 

Much like the city’s start ups, public cemeteries here in Hong Kong have a rapid turnover rate. Dead, buried and gone doesn’t necessarily mean forever. In fact, it could mean for a mere six years.

Faced with a chronic land shortage and some of the most cramped quarters in the world, the city has undertaken various ways of coping with the demand for space, both for the living and the dear departed. 

While the warm blooded among us are packed into ever smaller, ever more vertical apartments, just six years after being laid to rest, the dead may see themselves awoken by the government’s Cemeteries & Crematoria Special Duties Team. 

In an ever increasing number of cases, an exhumation order is issued to the family, after which (if no action is independently taken) the remains are disinterred and cremated before being housed in in a communal grave at the Sandy Ridge Cemetery in Lo Wu. Essentially what you’re told is – rest in peace, but not in perpetuity. 

This is indeed a controversial approach, and, generally speaking, one that is not in keeping with Hong Kong’s traditions and customs, where the dead are less often feared, and more revered. Joss paper (paper money) and other worldly representations are burnt for deceased relatives at the annual Hungry Ghost Festival, while the Qingming Festival calls for the sweeping of ancestral tombs. 

For many, the thought of digging up the dead conjures up images of far-fetched horror films, but for others, this is no alien concept. We spoke to a man who works at the Lai Chi Yuen Cemetery on Lantau Island, who asked for his name and specific position not to be declared due to the sensitive nature of the subject. Exhumation orders were issued in July of this year at Lai Chi Yuen Cemetery.

Making no airs or graces about it, he explains, “It’s just a fact of life now. Lantau may be quiet, but look at the rest of Hong Kong – the harbour has been built on, the housing system is full. People are living in the worst conditions. The problem of land has never been so real.” 

The cemetery employee tells us that people have responded to the exhumations in a number of different ways, ranging from grief to apathy. “Some people do get very upset. They treat it as having to say goodbye and mourn someone twice. To others, dead is dead, at the end of the day.” 

You don’t have to dig that deep to conclude that more frightening than any impending visit from a ghost or ghoul this Hallow’s Eve is the prospect of this happening to you or your loved one. They say the only thing that’s constant is change – so here’s to hoping a change is on the horizon, for the sake of those in this life and the next. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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