How the Romanticization of Death influenced Urban Cemeteries in Hong Kong

Sep 7 · 14 min read
Hong Kong Cemetery — Bjørn Christian Tørrissen [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Memento mori, the Latin expression for “remember you have to die” is best exemplified in cemeteries. Located at and contained within specific sites, cemeteries as a space that concentrates the burial and storage of the dead is ubiquitous among many societies. Whilst the urban environment we often interact with is the city of the living, cemeteries poise as the city of the dead — one that acts as an ambiguous mirror image of the urbanscape and shares an intricate relationship with the city.

In a bustling city like Hong Kong, with approximately 8 square kilometers of land allocated for the use of cemeteries and columbaria[1], comparisons have been drawn between cemeteries and the cityscape in terms of its spatial organization. The compact and tiered cemeteries in Hong Kong are said to mirror the density of high-rise apartments[2], and it has also been opined that when one turns a cemetery upside down, the tombstones seem to be an inverted reflection of the city’s skyscrapers[3]. Despite the seemingly harmonious mirror image, underlying tensions become apparent in the midst of the accelerated pace of urbanization due to the scarcity of land resources. As more and more space is needed for the sprawling city population, there is also an increased demand for space to host those who have passed away.

As an attempt to strike a balance between the growing population (living and dead)in Hong Kong, measures have been introduced to reduce the the size of the spaces used to store the body or ashes of the dead and the duration of ‘storage’, subject to renewal. The pressure in space and time might have sparked the resurgence of rurality and romanticization of the dead through developing green urban burial grounds. By focusing on the cemeteries built since the British occupation of Hong Kong in 1841 to the present day, this article tries to explore how cemeteries reflect power relationships in the urban landscape and how the resurgence of romanticization in the dead through re-ruralizing urban cemeteries reflects the interactions between the dead, the living, and the city.

Cemeteries as ‘Other Space’

Apart from the ancestral tombs located near the indigenous villages in the New Territories, many cemeteries in Hong Kong are in close proximity to the city but separated by an ambiguous distance — they remain easily accessible despite being located at the fringe of the city. Due to spatial and sanitary concerns, cemeteries were previously constructed outside of the city. As the city continues to expand outwards to accommodate the growing population, cemeteries were later enveloped and included as part of the city area. The ambiguous character bestowed upon cemeteries reinforces their status as semi-autonomous spaces that remain distant but simultaneously weaved into the urban fabric.

The narrative concerning urban cemeteries seems to coincide with the concept of ‘other space’. Argued by Stuart Hall, this form of ‘otherness’ as a form of representation is used to reinforce and justify the power of the privileged through endorsing the dominant cultural meaning. As death continues to persist as one of the strongest taboos within the society, cemeteries pertaining to strong connections with death are rarely visited on normal occasions despite its visibility and proximity to the city. Cemeteries in Hong Kong may also be seen as an example of reverse hallucination in the words of Abbas where people refuse to see its presence due to the internalized cultural meaning attached to it. This exemplifies how the negative representation of cemeteries as a cultural construct reveals a power relationship, as suggested by Jacques Derrida, between “poles of binary opposition”[4] — between the dead and the living — thereby justifying its geographical segregation in the process of urban development. The biased representation has also been typified in the neighborhood resistance against the construction of columbaria next to residential areas due to fengshui reasons, which could be seen as examples of attempts to eliminate elements of ‘otherness’.

Cemeteries, whether in the form of gardens or tiers, are not simply an ‘other space’ in terms of being a representation of power division and the endorsement of preferred cultural meanings. They too possess ambiguous spatio-temporal qualities which echo Foucault’s concept of heterotopia. Cemeteries as a bounded and domesticated space does not only serve as an enclosure that separates the dead from the world of living, they are also metaphorically set apart from the linear continuity of time. Frances et al has suggested that they are timeless spaces of generationalism[5], and they are a form of spatialization of memory that allows transcendence between the past and present — where the living escapes from linear time into that of the eternal realm, and the dead are transformed into living time by maintaining their continued social existence and individual identities. In garden cemeteries like the Hong Kong Cemetery in Happy Valley or the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, they have arguably further disrupted the chronicity found in cemeteries by possessing an additional heterotopic quality of urban gardens. Apart from being a microcosm of plants drawn from different geographical regions, most Western garden cemeteries also take their rural imagery from the biblical Garden of Eden, which again encompasses the binary opposite of immortality and mortality within the same space.

In addition to the timelessness of heterotopia, cemeteries also emplace a sense of placelessness by being simultaneously present and absent, for example, through the continuation of identity of the deceased which allow the absent to mark their place in the urban society. This dense site of history where grieving and forgetting operates simultaneously (Cheung 80) makes cemeteries ‘spectral cities’ in the literal sense, and it further exemplifies the ‘otherness’ of cemeteries in the urban city.

Cemeteries — Ruralization and Gentrification

The Rural/Urban Divide

Rurality has always been seen as the opposite of the city, where the former is concerned with nature and wilderness, the latter is concerned with modernity and progress. Cemeteries sit between the two ends of the spectrum and encapsulate the ambiguity of the boundaries between urbanity and rurality — cemeteries went from bringing urban elements into the countryside, to gradually bringing wilderness into the city.

For example, the Hong Kong Cemetery which was originally intended for British soldiers and the privileged class during the colonial era was relocated to Happy Valley since it was considered to be more rural and far from city (in comparison to the first Wan Chai Cemetery) and too mosquito-ridden to ever be used as land reserved for residential purposes, which seems to reflect a negative imagery of the rural landscape in comparison to the relatively positive urban life. Nonetheless, as the Cemetery was built under the direction of the British colonial government during the Victorian era, it was simultaneously influenced by the zeitgeist of the ‘Cult of Death’ and the Rural Cemetery Movement, thereby justifying the ruralization of the cemetery by incorporating the mainstream rural imagery.

The Cult of Death which sentimentalizes mortality is reflected through its use of large ornate monuments found inside Hong Kong Cemetery. The Rural Cemetery Movement on the other hand was strongly influenced by Romantic literature such as that of Wordsworth and Coleridge that aims at re-conceptualizing and idealizing nature, recognizing the connection between man and nature. Cemeteries in the United States and in the United Kingdom have hence designed cemeteries on the fringe of the city according to the romantic conventions of English landscape gardening (Bender 196), and a similar trend was later introduced into Hong Kong. Apart from the Hong Kong Cemetery, similar structures and ideologies were found in other veteran cemeteries scattered across the island. Justifications for the rise of the movement were often associated with the marginalization of nature as a result of the growth of industrialized and urbanized cities, where the anxiety generated by the visual monotony of cities have been palliated by the romanticized cemeteries. Ruralization did not occur until the rise of an accepted ideology that enjoins death imagery with the natural world.

In addition to possessing a dual negative and positive rural imagery, early cemeteries established by the British colonial government nonetheless present a contradictory conundrum. Whilst strongly influenced by the ruralization movement that pays homage to nature, artificial structures like that of tombstones, gates, benches and the like were introduced to the natural environment in mass numbers, inherently reducing the wilderness associated with nature. Cemeteries have thus transformed into an ambiguous space that muddles the distinction between rurality and urbanity, and has created a semi-natural landscape that evokes the tension between natural and artificial elements under an urbanized landscape.

Chinese cemeteries in Hong Kong too have undergone ruralization in the Nineteenth Century, but for a very different reason. As deceased Chinese persons were not allowed to be buried in colonial cemeteries until 1885[6], in light of an growing Chinese population alongside an increasing mortality rate, it has led to the studding of hillside crypts in Hong Kong. Different from the colonial cemeteries, the construction of the first Chinese permanent cemetery in Aberdeen, at the outskirts of the main city area, seems to place functionality over the aesthetic qualities pursued by that of colonial cemeteries, which further enhances the ideologically ambiguous quality associated with cemeteries in Hong Kong. Both Colonial and Chinese Cemeteries have disrupted the rural/urban balance by re-configuring rural areas with artificial alterations.

Aberdeen Chinese Cemetery — Ceeseven [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

The examples above seem to illustrate how the construction of the first urban cemeteries in Hong Kong have tried to bring urban elements into the rural outskirts. A change of tide was later observed in the 1980s when private permanent burials were abolished. This change in government policy has led to the construction of multi-storied columbaria and Gardens of Remembrance which are placed in closer proximity with the city, for example that of Diamond Hill and Kwai Chung, bringing green rural imagery into the city and subverting the traditional relationship between the rural and city inside the confines of cemeteries. This subversion, by bringing cemeteries into the city instead of rural areas re-examines our visceral relationship with death in the city.

The Class/Wealth Divide

The rural/urban subversion is reflective of the urban issues faced by Hong Kong, and it further amplifies the inequalities in social status as reflected by the separation between traditional Colonial cemeteries and Chinese cemeteries, where the power relationship is reinforced through a literal demarcation of living and burial grounds. Early Chinese cemeteries were simply straits of barren land set apart by the colonial government for the burial of Chinese regardless of class (Ko 253), whereas colonial cemeteries have been reserved for elites or people of non-Chinese descent. Yet, this tension has been gradually transformed into one that is between the privileged and less-privileged Chinese citizens, and has created internal differentiations of geographic space under an uneven urban-space economy (Smith 261). As argued by Christien Klaufus[7], the dead in the city resembles a form of gentrification that deepens inequalities between those who are allowed to literally rest in peace, and those who have to be constantly relocated. As the last available burial spaces in Hong Kong have been fully consumed in the 1980s, private burial grounds have become a privilege. On the other hand, many ordinary citizens would have to undergo a five-year wait for a small spot in a public columbarium[8] if alternative green burial methods are not within their consideration.

Henri Lefebvre has suggested that space is a production of capitalist society seving the interests of the privileged (Lefebvre 33), and similar thoughts have been echoed by John Troyer, saying burial is ultimately an issue about capitalism and commodification[9]. The overcrowded urban cemeteries mirror the sub-sector of Hong Kong’s current property market where long-term tenure have been viewed as the privilege of the elite, and short-term occupancy in smaller spaces has emerged as the growing trend. Another trend observed is that the dead continues to be bound by the same rules as the living, where the wealthy or privileged may stay protected within gated communities (like that of Hong Kong Cemetery) and are granted the right of permanent stay, whereas the less privileged are marginalized and would need to relocate into smaller places, like that of small slots provided in various columbaria. Eternity and enshrinement are thus transformed into commodities in a hyper-capitalist world, and is evident in a capitalist-dominated city like Hong Kong, where cemeteries and spaces of death reproduce the spatial patterns of inequality faced by the urban living population.

Renewed Romanticization of Death

Increased urbanization had led to a heightened romanticization of death, where the romantic beliefs associated with the Rural Cemetery Movement have moved out from the confines of traditional colonial cemeteries and have moved into Chinese Cemeteries and Columbaria, coinciding with increased government efforts in promoting cremation and green burial as solutions to the shortage for burial spaces to meet the growing demand.

The first layer of romanticization is achieved through renaming such utilized lands, where many cemeteries in the United States are now referred to as ‘Memorial Parks’, the cemeteries and crematoria constructed in the recent decade in Hong Kong are named as ‘Gardens of Remembrance’. In contrast to the previous method of romanticization by bestowing value upon rural land and sentimentalizing death through aesthetic structures, the act of renaming may be seen as an attempt to reinvent the dominant cultural meaning and stigma attached to these spaces of death by associating it with a more positive representation.

Wo Hop Shek Crematorium Phase V — [Dltl2010 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

The second layer of romanticization on the other hand is actualized by an attempted revitalization of the garden cemetery through architectural redesigns and planned reintroduction of greenery into urban cemeteries and crematoria. Notable examples include Wo Hop Shek Crematorium and the Diamond Hill Crematorium where the design philosophy behind the structures is to merge with nature and create pleasures of rural experience with meadows and fountains[10]. Such ideology may seem to resemble the motive behind the Rural Cemetery Movement evoking a renewed idealization of the connection between man and nature, suggesting a progress in revamping the relationship between cities and death, and also that of rurality and urbanity. Yet, this form of rurality may, arguably, be only seen as a simulation of nature, creating a pseudo-green space under the increasingly gentrified and planned way of living. This new wave of romanticization of cemeteries in fact reinforces the ambiguous quality of encapsulating the binary opposites which modern urban cemeteries possess.

Death of Cemeteries

Cemeteries, or columbaria as cities of the dead closely associated with being a place with a physical location may be approaching the beginning of its demise, just as the experience in cities of the living is gradually fading due to the increasingly monotonous approach in understanding the city. A greater emphasis has been placed upon visuals in the age of information technology, where people tend to obtain information about the city through various interfaces, instead of understanding the cityscape through physical boundaries. As Ackbar Abbas mentioned, many global contemporary cities have thus become “overexposed,” as the concept of boundaries is gradually replaced by that of the interface[11]. This thus reflects a new form of the dualistic dynamic encompassed by the city, the physical and the virtual.

The same applies to cemeteries which have taken on an increasingly virtual approach, and is slowly removed from the physical soil. This detachment was first preceded by the dynamic between the horizontal and vertical, where burial grounds have gradually moved away from horizontal spatialization like that of traditional Colonial cemeteries or the tiered permanent Chinese cemeteries, but was remodeled into vertical developments like that of multistoried columbaria where the urns are literally detached from physical land. The relocation of the dead into the virtual realm has furthered this form of detachment, mirroring the transformation of cities through interfaces. The Hong Kong government has introduced and implemented a social media network[12] (and a corresponding mobile application) of virtual graves in the recent decade for families who had been forced to cremate their relatives’ ashes due to acute land shortages, leaving them with no physical place to pay respects. Traditional rituals associated with commemorating the dead have then been replaced by pop culture motifs including emoticons featuring roast pigs and paper money offerings.

Other similar ideas known as the ‘Future Cemeteries Project’[13] have been raised in United Kingdom, where cemeteries are aiming to move online, or will be approached using augmented or virtual reality-related technology. The shift into virtual interfaces thus puts forward another discourse regarding the distinction between place and space in addition to cemeteries’ gradual detachment from physical land. Whilst cemeteries have generally been acknowledged as places located at a specific site, this shift in tide suggests the fluidity of cemeteries of being a relocatable space, in both the physical and virtual realm, which further heightens its ambiguous nature.

Conclusion

As suggested by Aldo Rossi, “the city is the locus of the collective memory,”[14] and cemeteries embody its literal definition by being spaces which reminiscent the past despite its ambiguous temporal quality. As cities of the dead, cemeteries mirror the spatialization and urban development of cities of the living, but nonetheless remains a highly complex and ambiguous space due to volatile relationships between rurality and urbanity, timelessness and placelessness, physicality and virtuality, allowing cemeteries to become spaces of growing hybrid unity.

Despite the resurgence of the romanticization of mortality in the modern urban city through the reintroduction of greenery and acts of renaming, the taboo associated with death persists throughout the mainstream sentiment, thereby reinforcing the dominant negative cultural meaning imposed upon cemeteries, and continues the halt its full integration within the urban fabric. Hence the relationship between the dead, the living and the city continues to remain unresolved, and under a capitalist city like Hong Kong, just like other global cities, the ability to ‘rest in peace’ is commodified and the costs of dying is gradually climbing up to new heights.


Footnotes

[1] “Land Utilization in Hong Kong 2017.” Planning Department — Land Utilization in Hong Kong. Planning Department, 04 Jul 2018. Web. 28 Jun. 2019.

[2] Metcalfe, John. “A Stunning Tribute to Hong Kong’s Super-Packed Cemeteries.” CityLab. The Atlantic, 08 Nov. 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2016.

[3] Opinion of Dr. Julie Rugg, “Death in the City: What Happens When All Our Cemeteries Are Full?” The Guardian.

[4] Stuart Hall, “The Spectacle of the ‘Other’”, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, 1997. P.261.

[5] Francis, D. et al (2005) The Secret Cemetery, Oxford: Berg

[6] Ko, Tim-Keung. “A Review of Development of Cemeteries in Hong Kong: 1841–1950.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch 41 (2001), p.247.

[7] Mendelson, Zoe. “How City Cemeteries Echo the Patterns of Gentrification.” Science of Cities. Next City, 14 July 2015. Web.

[8] Liu, Ling Woo. “In Hong Kong, Even the Dead Wait in Line.” Time. Time Inc., 20 Apr. 2009. Web.

[9] De Sousa, Ana Naomi. “Death in the City: What Happens When All Our Cemeteries Are Full?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 21 Jan. 2015. Web.

[10] Lau, Vincent. “直面死亡的空間.” 明周 — Mingpaoweekly. Ming Pao Weekly, 26 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

[11] Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, 1997, p. 69.

[12] https://www.memorial.gov.hk/default.aspx

[13] http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/research/future-cemetery-project/

[14] Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1982, p. 130.


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Nicole Liang

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Freelance Translator│Flâneuse │interest in arts, film, pop culture, cities

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