Hong Kong, one of the world’s most densely populated areas, is looking to Japan for a solution to a perennial issue — what to do with the dead.

For the city’s 7 million residents, the struggle for space doesn’t end when they die. Finding a burial spot is difficult, with waiting times of as long as 56 months for a reused niche in a public burial site, according to government figures.

Secretary for Food and Health York Chow was in Japan last month to visit Tokyo-based Nichiryoku Co.’s mechanized columbarium, as facilities used to store urns are known. At the facility in central Yokohama, families swipe a smart card and the ashes of the deceased are lifted mechanically within 60 seconds from an underground vault, with 8,545 tomb spaces, to one of 10 viewing areas.

Like Tokyo, “Hong Kong has a shortage of land for burials,” Chow said during his tour. “We have difficulty getting land allocated for cemeteries and columbaria close to residential areas.”

The seven-story building uses less space per urn than a facility where all are on permanent display. Each tomb can hold as many as three urns and 95 percent are taken.

“In Hong Kong there are strict zoning laws for things like national parks and it’s difficult to secure large plots for burial,” Chow said. “So we’re looking at these kinds of designs to see if we can convert some of our industrial buildings.”

Properties looking onto graveyards or other sites associated with death typically sell or rent for less money in Hong Kong, making them unpopular. After accounting for almost 40 percent of Hong Kong’s 1,100 sq. km of land set aside for country parks, together with rural villages, farmland, mountainous terrain and beaches, only about 8 percent is classified as fully urban, according to government research.

Chow’s department estimates there will be about 43,900 cremations each year in the next decade. A standard niche in an urban cemetery is 2,890 Hong Kong dollars (¥34,000), while in the rural New Territories, a place costs HK$3,295 (¥38,500), according to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.

The Yokohama columbarium, built by Shimizu Corp., Mitsubishi Corp. and Murata Machinery Ltd., was the first of its kind, according to Nichiryoku. Since then, the company has built three more domestically and rival companies are doing the same, according to employees who guided Chow’s tour.

“Usually these things are handled by local priests and temples, and in our case we also cooperated with a local temple to open this facility,” said Hisayoshi Teramura, the company’s president. “It’s been a very successful venture for us and we’re getting interest from other cities.” A delegation from Shanghai visited last year and again this year, he said.

At Nichiryoku’s 24-hour Yokohama columbarium, urns are stored in a “tomb” box that slots into one of the designated viewing areas, decorated with a backdrop of floral designs, including cherry blossoms, snowdrops, cosmos and roses. People can bring food and flowers, which must be removed when they leave — in contrast to the tradition of graveyards in China.

Hong Kong shares much of Japan’s Buddhist culture and tradition, including a veneration of ancestors requiring regular visits to the remains of the dead. Nichiryoku has an innovation for that tradition, too: relatives can pray before an image of the urn over the Internet.

“We’re checking to see if this kind of facility can fit into our culture,” Chow said. “People are looking for places with dignity and with the right atmosphere.”

Given Hong Kong’s waiting lists and tight supply, many people opt for private providers. The Board of Management of the Chinese Permanent Cemeteries, the largest private graveyard andcolumbarium provider in Hong Kong, sells urn spaces for as much as HK$21,000 (¥245,500), while a graveyard space would cost up to HK$280,000 (¥3.3 million), according to information on the company’s Web site.

At Fung Ying Seen Koon, a Taoist temple in the New Territories, a niche measuring 25.5 cm by 30 cm may range from HK$70,000 (¥820,000) to HK$120,000 (¥1.4 million).

The government has been encouraging people to find alternative ways of disposing of remains, including scattering ashes at sea, Chow said. The number of applications for spreading ashes in local waters increased to 243 last year from 160 in 2007, he said.

“We will step up the efforts to promote such alternative ways of disposal of remains,” he wrote in response to a lawmaker’s question Oct. 21. “This will call for changes in our social customs.”

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