You're a long time dead, but six years is your lot in your plot

(First Edition) IN OVERCROWDED Hong Kong anyone buried in a public cemetery today will Rest In Peace, but not for long; skeletal remains will be exhumed 2000 to make way for a new occupant. 'This is obviously due to inadequate supply of burial space,' explained Chan Kam-tong, senior health inspector (cemeteries and crematoria).

Since 1977, all graves in public cemeteries have been exhumable after six years. Anyone wanting a more permanent resting place must go private, but that is not cheap. The Chinese Permanent Cemetery group, which dates back to 1913, offers three possibilities: the permanent grave lot at HKdollars 220,000 (18,000), the 10-year renewable contract at HKdollars 22,000 and the 10-year non-renewable lot for HKdollars 15,000. According to Wilfred Lam, the group manager, renewable contracts are the most popular.

These days, said Mr Chan, about one-third of rural residents and fewer than 10per cent of urban folk opt for coffin burial. 'Over the past 30 years, the Hong Kong government has encouraged people to adopt the disposal method of cremation.

It is much cheaper. A six-year burial lot in a public cemetery retails for HKdollars 5,940, compared with HKdollars 945 for cremation.

An indelicate question is what exactly happens when the contract runs out.

Mr Chan said: 'As a reminder, the management will inform family members by letter. If there is no response we will publish a notice in three newspapers, telling them to come forward for exhumation within six months.'

The family can choose either to store the bones in an ossuary, or cremate the remains.

'If the family does not come forward, the management will exhume the skeletal remains and keep them in an urn cemetery. In government cemeteries, the skeletal remains are kept for seven years, then cremated and buried in a communal cemetery.'

Despite the pressure on land, Mr Chan said, there were no plans to reduce the six-year cycle. 'Six years is very short. We have to allow time for the decomposition of the body.'

Hong Kong people still celebrate festivals when offspring are duty-bound to clean and tend ancestors' graves. According to Mr Lam, absent-minded families turning up for last Thursday's Chung Yeung festival would have found a notice telling them someone else had been moved into Grandpa's plot.