Funeral Parlours in Hung Hom, the funeral district of Hong Kong
Text: Detail Daily
The city of Hong Kong has surprised me many times since I first visited in 1997. The scale and density of the city is breathtaking, and its qualities combine to create the most intense urban experience it is possible to imagine. Recently however, a new aspect of the city was revealed to me when I was called upon to attend an important funeral. The great rituals of life, birth weddings and funeral celebrations are at the heart of any society and I felt it a privilege to be a participant on this occasion. The occasion was of course solemn and sad, but beyond that, the intensity of the experience was pure Hong Kong. There was so much to see and learn.
The district of Hung Hom has a preponderance of, what Hong Kong people call funeral parlours. I have come to see these buildings as archetypes whose existence I had previously been unaware of. Each parlour is a large building with suites for perhaps fifty separate funeral services to be held simultaneously. The suites are arranged adjacent to each other and over several floors. On each floor there is a generous public corridor providing access to the suites from the front.
The suites themselves vary in size depending on the requirements of the funeral. One of the suites could accommodate more than a thousand mourners, whilst others are designed for about fifty people. Religious services are usually held over two days, and might be conducted in any of the worlds great religious traditions. The suites must therefore be flexible and quickly reconfigured to suit the service.
The family of the deceased, will spend two days in the parlour, conducting the services and greeting mourners, so there is a need of basic facilities that include an internal room for the changing of ceremonial robes, and basic washing facilities. There is also a special room for the deceased behind what I would call the altar area. This room is plainly decorated and lit more brightly as it is where mourners can pay their final respects in greater privacy than the main space. The alter area, in the configuration I saw, was on axis at the opposite end of the room from the entrance. Other suites however had been arranged differently. In each suite there was a small fireplace for the burning of prayers, notes and ceremonial offerings that might be of use in the afterlife. Dinner will also be served in the main space where monks, other holy people and mourners will share food.
The funeral parlour itself is considered to be a semi public place, and until recently mourners would stay there the whole night, greeting people who had come from afar to pay their respects. This practice has since been stopped by the authorities after a spate of high profile robberies, but the parlour is still open until 10.00pm and opens at dawn.
The public nature of the parlour allows mourners to look-in on adjacent funerals which might be conducted in a different religion or tradition entirely. I attend a Buddhist service but looked-in upon a Shinto, and a Christian funeral being held in adjacent suites.
Servicing these great parlours requires industry. The streets around are packed with shops, and workshops making caskets, preparing flowers, stitching shrouds, servicing hearses and providing the many other services and products that are required.
Further photographs and information can be found here.