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Death in the City
Source: ARCADE Magazine
10-6-2020 | News
By April Ng
“Every death teaches us that all humans have to die in the end.” Ichiraku Makoto, from a leaflet on Shin Buddhism
Throughout the world, cemeteries and columbaria delicately balance the threshold between the essential phases of humanity: life and death. Hong Kong holds a particularly fascinating relationship between the two. Here, a dense living population and an equally dense deceased population share a limited land mass.
Hong Kong tradition holds that the dead physically inhabit the space in which they are interred. This belief creates a cultural requirement: families must live nearby in order to regularly visit and care for these final resting places. And yet, feng shui dictates that columbaria and cemeteries should not be visible from one’s dwelling place. As Hong Kong’s urban center grows, the living are increasingly encroaching on the cemeteries and columbaria previously located beyond city limits. The paradox of familial closeness and philosophical separation is amplified by the mountainous topography and limited land available for development. Is there an architectural solution to creating new places for remembering and respecting the dead that satisfies both cultural values—proximity and separation—within the limits of a city forced to grow vertically?
In the spring of 2015, I visited the resting places of my ancestors in accordance with the tradition and customs of my Cantonese family. Despite the different methods of interring remains, the rites during visitation were similar. Whether at a columbarium or cemetery, visiting relatives always clean the marker of the deceased; light incense; and offer greetings from and bring news about the rest of the family. The traditions are simple and beautiful, and the ritual for visiting the dead carries more celebration than grief—an act of coming together as a family to offer reassurance in the face of death.
This journey through a frantic mega-city to these quiet places of reprieve and contemplation also gave me a deeper understanding of Eastern relationships to the dead. Ultimately, I must ask why Westerners have such an estranged relationship to those who are no longer living, as well as what that means for me, with one foot in each of these worlds. Closeness with the dead is an integral part of what it means to live in Hong Kong, and this travel experience revealed both the resilience and adaptability of a culture and its architectural response. So long as the ability to visit the deceased remains, cultural acceptance of the physical context is variable, as seen in the wide range from grand family burial plots to the library-like collections of niches for cremated remains. Scarcity of land cannot diminish the desire to commune with one’s ancestors, and thus novel design will surely continue to spring forth, as the perpetually intertwining cycles of life and death continue.
Visiting my deceased relatives exposed me to the full spectrum of funerary sites in Hong Kong, in all corners of the city. Some sites are sprawling hillside cemeteries where new towers loom just outside, while others are located adjacent to new highways with graves packed so densely that one must apologize at every step while walking over the remains of others. I visited centuries-old columbaria in temples with walls patterned by bright orange and yellow niches for remains alongside mythological murals and sculptures; 1950s-era columbaria containing delicate shelves lined with porcelain urns; and entirely new, modern crematoriums with crisp white alcoves bathed in light and adorned with fresh flowers.