Atlantic Cities

The Challenges of Burying the Dead in Urban Asia

The Challenges of Burying the Dead in Urban Asia
Reuters

In highly dense cities it's often hard enough to find room for the living, let alone the dead. The problem is compounded in cultures that place great ritual meaning on burial sites. Given the realities of space constraints in many Asian cities, governments have been encouraging residents to forego traditional land burials for cremation. Even that hasn't always been enough; in some places, the columbaria, where people can store their family urns, have reached capacity as well.

What began as a physical problem has given rise to novel spiritual rituals in many Asian cities. In the February issue of Urban Studies, Lily Kong, a geographer at the National University of Singapore, describes how commemorative practices in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China have changed in response to shrinking amounts of physical space for the dead. These shifts — from earthly graves to cremation, and now to scattered ashes and even online memorials — mark a graduation from "spatial competition to spatial compression and then to spatial transcendence," Kong writes:

What is evident from existing studies is that death practices and deathscapes have evolved over time in a number of Asian cities. ... As a consequence, sacred space and sacred time have been reconceptualised and rituals have been (re)invented to suit conditions of modernity while addressing abiding belief systems.

Kong points to three main examples in support of her point. The first is the (slowly) rising act of burial by sea in Hong Kong. A few years back officials recognized that by 2012 half of people who died in the city wouldn't be able to find a spot in a columbarium, so the government began to promote the scattering of cremated ashes at sea. The process is non-pollutive and restricted to certain areas, and it's also far cheaper than keeping an urn, which can cost at least $500 in U.S. currency.

However city residents have been reluctant to embrace the practice for several religious reasons. One is the belief, rooted in Chinese ritual, that the body should return to its natural place in the earth. Without a burial, therefore, people grow fearful of "giving rise to a ‘hungry ghost’ rather than a venerated ancestor," Kong writes. Many also see scattering ashes at sea as tantamount to feeding fish — and thus disrespectful to the dead.

By comparison, the practice of woodland burials in cities in Taiwan have became far more popular. Taipei City has a density of nearly 10,000 people per square kilometer, and the packed city has a seven-year limit for earthen burial, after which the body must be exhumed and cremated. Still there's a shortage of cemetery plots, Kong writes. Of its two major columbaria, one reached capacity in 2004 while the other was expected to do so last year.

In response the government has pushed hard for woodland or parkland burials. In the former, family members place ashes in biodegradable urns near a tree; in the latter, they scatter ashes over flower gardens. Both methods require just 10 percent of the space needed by a traditional grave site. Buddhists have accepted the practices as environmentally friendly, and the method offers some benefits that sea burial does not, such as the ability to mark sites with a rock and visit it later. With a few exceptions, the people of Taiwan have embraced the alternative; the first woodland plot, which opened in October of 2003, was full by September of 2004.

Kong ends her survey with a look at online memorialization in cities of mainland China. By 1985 density pressures had made cremation compulsory by law, and alternatives like woodland and sea burials have been introduced over the years. In addition the country has introduced online mourning sites, through which relatives of the deceased can set up a page dedicated to a loved one's memory. Kong describes:

With the websites dedicated to mourning and memorialisation, users can use their computer mouse to drag fresh flowers, matches, incense, candles and tea and wine cups to simulate the real act of offering flowers, lighting incense and candles, and offering tea and wine. The sites also feature photos of the deceased, prayers offered by their mourners and stories and reminiscences about past lives, which can be captured in multimedia format. For the specific site they are engaged with, they may also choose their own backgrounds and tombstone images.

By 2007 there were more than 30 commercial memorial websites in China, Kong reports. One of these, Netor, reported roughly 6 million messages posted to the site in its first six years of existence, though others have reported far less impressive traffic levels. That's because many Chinese object to the practice on several grounds. Some don't view the Internet as a respectful forum for remembering the deceased, while others have a desire to continue the ceremony of Qing Ming — an annual festival to celebrate the departed by visiting a gravesite.

Kong concludes that the most successful alternative burial methods in Asia are those that offer a mechanism for "spatial transcendence" while providing for both a dignified afterlife and a way for living relatives to honor the dead:

The relative reception of these new practices is thus dependent on the ability to address the need for a unique place where memorial practices may be carried out. It is also premised on the ability to maintain relative levels of privacy (hence exclusivity) and public character according to the desires of the descendants. Further, it is necessary that there remains some thread of continuity with old rituals.

Top image: A worker arranges altar tablets at a luxury columbarium in Singapore (Reuters)

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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