By JAVIER C. HERNÁNDEZ OCT. 22, 2015 New York Times
HONG KONG — Far from the sleek skyscrapers of downtown, in a world of bamboo trees and Buddhist shrines, the Wo Hop Shek Garden of Remembrance stands as one of this territory’s most alluring resting places. Grasshoppers prance on the pathways, and bells chime in the distance.
But the garden, which opened two years ago as a place for families to scatter the ashes of loved ones, is deserted on most days. The stately granite walls that line the paths, meant to preserve the names of those laid to rest here, are nearly bare, with only 300 of 9,000 plaques in use.
“Nobody wants to come here,” said Lam Ming-wai, a government worker who oversees the garden. “Hong Kong people are too old-fashioned.”
Generations in Hong Kong have followed a familiar routine to honor the dead, jostling for prime burial spots in the mountains and by the sea, or spending small fortunes on jade urns and elaborate ceremonies.
But now the government is seeking to upend those customs. Concerned by a scarcity of space and a rise in deaths, it has embarked on an effort to promote “green burials,” urging the public to forgo traditional burials and the storage of funeral urns in special buildings after cremation. Instead, it wants people to scatter the ashes of loved ones in gardens and at sea.
In a society in which ancestors are tirelessly worshiped, many see the idea as anathema. Chinese tradition dictates that families return their deceased relatives to their birthplaces and bury them or preserve their ashes so that future generations can pay homage and receive blessings.
“We want to give our ancestors a home, someplace to stay,” said Tommy Fung, 35, an office clerk, during a recent visit to a cemetery. “How can you do that if you just throw their ashes all over the place?”
Hong Kong officials have led a vigorous campaign over the past year to dispel such concerns. Civil servants have visited secondary schools and centers for the elderly to proselytize about “returning to nature.”
The government has set up a memorial website as an alternative to tombstones, complete with a button to leave virtual fruit offerings. Feel-good public service announcements filled with references to rebirth and rejuvenation have appeared on television.
“If only I can rest in such a scenic environment after I pass away,” a grandmother exclaims in one video, sitting next to her grandson in a park. In another, an elderly woman grips her husband’s hand by the ocean. “When I look at the blue sky and the lovely sea, I feel so free,” she says.
Hong Kong is one of the world’s most densely populated metropolises, with 7.2 million people packed into about 400 square miles of hilly terrain, much of it set aside for parks and nature reserves. Anticipating a shortage of burial space as the population grew, the government largely succeeded over the past four decades in persuading residents to abandon burials in favor of cremation, which was once rare here. Today, about 90 percent of the deceased are cremated.
But now Hong Kong is quickly running out of space to store the ashes of the dead. The government operates only eight columbaria where families can store funeral urns, and many are nearly full. Meanwhile, space at private columbaria is often prohibitively expensive.
The government has plans to build facilities to house the ashes of hundreds of thousands of people over the next several years, but residents near the proposed sites have resisted, sometimes with street protests. Many are concerned that real estate prices will fall, and the superstitious among them fear ghosts and disruptions to feng shui, the traditional Chinese system of harmonizing the environment.
“This is not going to be easy,” said Sophia S. C. Chan, a government official who oversees the green burial program.
Ms. Chan said only 9 percent of people in Hong Kong who were cremated had their ashes scattered last year. It has been difficult to overcome the idea that scattering ashes is disrespectful to the dead, and many people consider green burials an invention of the West, she said.
Plaques at the Wo Hop Shek Garden of Remembrance bear the names of those whose ashes have been spread there. The government is encouraging such “green burials.” Credit Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times
The government has tried to recruit celebrities to promote green burials, but many are reluctant to be associated with a cause carrying such morbid overtones. Officials must also contend with Hong Kong’s booming funeral shops, which sell a variety of products — urns, coffins, bouquets and jewelry — to help families lay relatives to rest the traditional way.
Jeff Lin, who owns a small funeral shop in Hong Kong, said the government should focus on building new cemeteries, not promoting green burials. “It’s not fair to say to families, ‘Sorry, we don’t have space for your grandfather, maybe you should consider throwing him into the sea instead,’ ” he said. “It’s the government’s responsibility to fix this problem.”
The Hong Kong Funeral Business Association, an alliance of 60 funeral shops, agrees and has staged protests against the government’s policy. “The promotion of green burials alone cannot solve the lack of space,” said Ng Yiu-tong, the chairman of the association.
Cities across Asia have faced similar shortages of burial space in recent years. But few are as congested as Hong Kong. People joke that in some neighborhoods, it now is cheaper per square foot to buy a home than to buy space to store a funeral urn, with prices for some private niches exceeding $100,000. The most luxurious private columbaria offer 24-hour security, ocean views and regular visits by Buddhist monks.
Hong Kong officials expect the problem to get worse as the population ages and the number of deaths each year continues to rise. There were nearly 46,000 deaths in the territory last year, up 18 percent from 2005.
The government hopes more Hong Kong residents will choose to scatter ashes at the Wo Hop Shek, but many are reluctant to break with the customs of burying or storing cremated remains. Credit Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times
The government has set aside space at eight columbaria for memorial gardens where ashes can be scattered, including the one at Wo Hop Shek. Many resemble Zen gardens with stone pathways and small statues of snails and rabbits. To encourage sea burials, Hong Kong also provides free ferry rides for families wishing to scatter ashes.
Despite these incentives, many residents still harbor doubts. It is common for families to ignore requests by their relatives to scatter their ashes, because they are afraid of insulting them in the afterlife, officials said.
Betsy Ma of Sage Funeral Services, which specializes in green burials, said that older family members were particularly hostile to the idea. “If they look conservative, I don’t even ask anymore,” Ms. Ma said. “They will hit me” for just suggesting the option, she said.
Still, Ms. Ma has managed to parlay the limited interest in green burials in Hong Kong into a business. For prices starting around $800, she converts the ashes of the deceased into gemstones using a high-heat process similar to the method used to make synthetic diamonds.
Adrian Leung, 36, bought two stones after his father died of complications from a stroke in August. Next month, Mr. Leung will spread the rest of his father’s ashes at a garden in eastern Hong Kong, honoring his wish to avoid a “creepy graveyard.”
But Mr. Leung faulted the government for not offering families more options. “Prices are too high, and all the arrangements are too complicated,” he said. “Right now, this is the most feasible option.”
At Wo Hop Shek, Mr. Lam, the government worker, walked along the pathways, showing off the empty memorial walls. When his own father died in 2012, he recalled, he suggested to his mother that they honor his father’s wish to have his ashes scattered at sea. But his mother was irate. “She was worried his remains would be eaten by fishes,” he said.
They fought for several days. Eventually he won her over. He assured her that he would hang a plaque bearing her father’s name in a nearby memorial garden, so that she would have a place to bring bananas and chrysanthemums every year, and to kneel and to pray.
A version of this article appears in print on October 23, 2015, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Trying to Redefine Final Resting Place.