Submission on Review of Columbarium Policy Public Consultation Document

To: Dr York Chow, Secretary for Food and Health

The formation of the Alliance for the Concern over Columbarium Policy (ACCP) was a response to the improper planning and regulation by the Administration which has triggered problems such as proliferation of illegal columbaria and disruption of the quiet rural life, the pure land for spiritual practice, the breeding ground for Buddhist culture and the rural ecological environment. There are even problems in the urban areas like the domiciles of the deceased and the living merely separated by a wall. ACCP is a platform for participants from areas/bodies including: Chek Nai Ping Village, Sha Tin; San Wai Tsuen, Yuen Long; Tsiu Keng Village, Sheung Shui; Lin Tong Mei Village, Sheung Shui; Kam Shan Village, Tai Po; Kap Lung Village, Tai Lam; Sheung Wo Che Village, Sha Tin; Ha Wo Che Village, Sha Tin; Luk Wu Village, Lantau and religious organizations ; Luk Wu Environmental Concern Group; Concern Group for the Environment of Tsuen Wan Sam Tip Tam; a group of residents fighting for preservation of the original features of Tei Tong Tsai; Association for Geoconservation, Hong Kong; Association for Tai O Environment and Development; Land Use in Kowloon Tong from Residential House to Cremains Care Concern Group; Office of Hon. Wong Sing Chi, Legislative Council Member; Office of Hon. Tanya Chan, Legislative Council Member; Office of District Councillor Yum Kwok Tung; Office of District Councillor Leung Chi Shing.

Regarding the Review of Columbarium Policy Public Consultation Document published by the Food and Health Bureau on 6 July 2010, beneath are our opinions:

I. On enforcement against illegal columbaria

1. We strongly demand the Departments concerned to enforce the law and order those illegal columbaria in construction to cease work to reduce the harm done to the original environment as far as possible, as well as to order the violators to restore the environment to its original face.

2. The Administration should set up a special law enforcement task force to handle the suspect cases of construction of illegal columbaria reported by the public. The task force should be vested with the power of investigation, prosecution and enforcement. It should no longer be like the present situation whereby the policy involves a number of departments to the extent that each one is able to evade responsibility whereas the residents concerned whose daily life is affected, the natural environment, heritage conservation and consumers all end up being losers.

II. On the regulation of columbarium operators

1. We agree with the Administration on the introduction of a licensing scheme for the regulation of private columbaria. But there should be an independent division/unit responsible for investigation and enforcement. We demand that operating columbaria should not be given license under the following three circumstances:

  1. Being located in a small house or village house area or falling under the Green Belt or Village Type Development zone on the Outline Zoning Plan;
  2. Operating inside multi-story buildings;
  3. Involving land within the bounds of the country parks and 77 pieces of land not yet incorporated into the country parks. The Authorities should commence immediate planning work in respect of the Development Permission Area Plans for the 77 pieces of land.

In determining the issuance of a license to a columbarium operator, besides considering whether the requirements of the Planning Department, Town Planning Board (TPB), Lands Department, Fire Services Department and Environmental Protection Department have been met, any illegal acts before and after construction and the impact on the residents must also be taken into account. Therefore, we strongly demand that residents’ acceptance of the construction process and whether the process involves damage to the natural environment should be the most important consideration. The rationale is if we merely consider the legal provisions but neglect the harm done to the residents and environment during the construction process, we would afford an encouragement, in fact if not in name, to social disharmony and those unscrupulous businessmen who benefit from the destruction of environmental ecology.

2. The existing columbaria found in violation {including those on List B} must not be allowed to advertise any more so as to prevent extension of incorrect messages to more consumers.

3. In addition to regulating private columbaria, the retail points of bone ash niches should be covered for the provision of more comprehensive consumer rights protection. At the same time, the order of the trades in the urban areas related to selling or operating funeral services which have taken the form of “offices” or “commodity retailing” but without associated licences would be further improved.

4. At present, there are a myriad of practices used for the sale of ash niches. We propose upon establishing the licensing scheme, the advertisement of private columbaria will be required to bear the license number for checking by the public. Also the agents of columbarium niches have to apply for a license to facilitate the regulation of their sales practices.

5. TPB is the ultimate decision-making board regarding the granting of approval to changes in land use with all members being appointed by the Government. We are of the view that TPB meetings should be open to the bodies and residents affected to allow participation in decision-making and environmental assessment should be included as a requirement where rural land is involved. These bodies and residents should not merely be target of consultation but also enjoy the right of participation in decision-making to ensure a fair and just granting decision and the right of participation by these bodies and residents.

6. We are concerned about the impact of columbaria operating in multi-story buildings and small houses in the rural areas. Since Chinese people have customs to perform religious soul-pacifying rituals and burning paper offering, whether the fire safety facilities of such premises conform to the requirements of columbaria is an issue of concern. Therefore, we consider that the Government should prohibit any columbarium operating in multi-story buildings and small houses.

7. The Government has put illegal columbaria under List B (for those which do not meet the requirements) and allowed them to make improvements to meet the licensing requirements. But we are of the opinion that the Government is still providing incentive for illegal development within the two and a half years of transitional period. Some unlawful developments which have already attracted complaint by the public before and after construction or sale and have been proved in violation of land or building or town planning regulations should not be granted temporary exemption but be immediately banned. Such unauthorized columbaria should be included in List C (for those fail to comply with the requirements). The Government has the responsibility to take proactive action to investigate whether private columbaria have met the general requirements. It must commit to complete the investigation into all private columbaria operators within three months and then proceed to draw up the lists. Therefore, an arrangement for a transitional period with a view to replace unauthorized columbaria will have to be devised. For example, laying down a replacement period during which the Government will take progressive steps for relocation to public niches.

  1. We propose to include length of operation as an assessment criterion in reviewing eligibility. In other words, before 1997 when columbarium facilities had not become a serious problem and their major operators were temples and monasteries, generally religious organizations whose major activity was religious practice with supplement income from columbarium niches rather than bodies which arose in the post-1997 period, when there was an imbalance between supply and demand, and started operation taking the form of acquiring temples and monasteries by a business group. The matter of distinguishing which ones are religious organizations may be entrusted to the Home Affairs Bureau in collaboration with the Hong Kong Buddhist Association (HKBA) and Hong Kong Taoist Association (HKTA). In other words, those religious organizations which have been operating columbarium business before 1997 may be exempted but those starting business after 1997 using temples and monasteries and with property title changed to be held by persons not from religious organizations cannot be exempted. Moreover, organizations which submit applications for columbarium operation in the name of religious organizations in the future have to meet the following three criteria:

    (A) Have the endorsement of designated associations of religious organizations, such as HKBA, Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong
    (B) The area used for bone ash niches do not exceed 10% of the total area.
    (C) There is a ceiling to the sale price of each niche and the proceeds are to be used for designated purposes (e.g. operation of the columbaria or charity).

  2. The Government should collect an annual charge from each licensed columbarium operator as the source of a compensation fund to be used for claims from the public.
  3. We agree with the government consultation document that a columbarium operator should possess the title to the site.

III. On the supply of columbarium niches

4. Public operation first must be taken as an important principle in order to prevent the sale of columbarium niches from becoming a form of commodity speculation, causing disruption to the quiet of the deceased in Hong Kong and giving rise to a post-mortem gap between the poor and the rich. We propose that the governmental supply of niches should account for at least 80% of the total number.

5. We strongly object to the Heung Yee Kuk (HYK) proposal of joint public-private columbaria. The membership of HYK comprises a number of directors in private companies, some even having involvement with operators of unauthorized columbaria. HYK also adopts a “destroy first, develop next” strategy for the proposed site at Mong Tung Wan, drawing criticism from the general public. Furthermore, HYK is a major functional constituency in possession of very strong political sway. Given such factors, the Government will unavoidably be suspected of government-rural collusion and transfer of benefits. (Please refer to our other letter for details)

6. In principle, we agree to the proposal that each district should be committed to reserving niches for priority allocation to local residents in need. But the Government should also consider issues such as the distance between the selected columbarium sites and local residences, transportation support and the natural environment.

7. The land use of Government cemeteries should be subject to re-planning according to the changes in demand for land burial and cremation, e.g. the re-planning of the vacant burial land at Wo Hop Shek Cemetery.

8. We support the Government’s idea about encouraging the living offspring to hand over niches to raise supply. Niches should be reusable but the length of service for each niche must be at least 60 years.

9. The Government should provide a clear schedule of supply and carry out relevant works accordingly to ensure a steady supply of a proportional number of public columbarium niches every year.

10. It is proposed that a monitoring committee should be created with non-government organizations, Legislative Councillors and District Councillors as members to follow up and monitor the progress of the supply of columbarium niches.

IV. On the clarification of the columbarium legislation

1. It is too long for legal enactment to require three years, extending beyond the term of the present Government and the current Legislative Council. By then there may be more delays turning a matter of enactment requiring three years into five-years. We strongly demand Government pledge on completing the legislative process within the present term of office.

2. The Government must complete the enactment about whether bone ash shall be defined as human remain so as to avoid difficulty in enforcement of the law by Government Departments arising from this grey area, as well as to avoid controversy over the legitimacy of operators. At present, quite a number of private columbaria take advantage of the vagueness of the legislation on gardens and burial gardens to operate columbaria in the form of garden or burial garden on farmland and private land inside country-parks casting huge impact on the natural environment and local residents. We are of the view that this piece of legislation should contain such provisions as limiting the storage of human remains including bone ashes in Government and private burial gardens to people whose kinship has been proven so as to completely stop unscrupulous businessmen from exploiting these legal loopholes.

3. To those residents who keep the remains of family members at home for worship, permission and encouragement by the law should continue to be provided so as to exemplify the filial piety of the Chinese tradition and to resolve the problem of shortage of columbarium niches.

V. Others

1. The Government may continue to promote such environmentally friendly burial rites such as garden burial, tree burial and sea burial but must more widely promote the traditional filial piety in Chinese culture, and more strongly encourage members of the public to keep their ancestral tablets at home and to bring home the bone ashes of their ancestors for worship to promote the traditional filial piety. Moreover, the Government should review the existing service of sea burial. A perfected sea burial service can attract more people to adopt.

2. The country-parks should be open to the public for scattering bone ashes as a means to realize the Chinese thinking of earth to earth, ashes to ashes; in the long run, this is also a way to solve the issue of land shortage. (It is proposed that the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department lay down criteria and impose monitoring)

3. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department should open to the public the three columbaria solely in the service of the indigenous villagers with a near zero utility rate because they are financed by public money and leaving resources constantly under-utilized is also a policy failure.

Eddie Tse
Alliance for the Concern over Columbarium Policy
30 September 2010
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