Around two weeks ago, dozens of large rectangular paperboard boxes were delivered to various public hospitals across Hong Kong. With bamboo leaves painted on the exterior and a linen lining, the “eco coffins” were donated by an NGO which hoped to allow Covid-19 victims to “pass away with dignity” amid the deadliest outbreak since the pandemic hit the city.

An eco coffin normally costs around HK$8,400. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Local charitable organisation Forget Thee Not sent the first batch of its 300 eco-friendly caskets to the Yan Chai Hospital on March 4. Made with high-strength paperboard that can withstand up to 160 kilograms, the unconventional coffins were a bid to alleviate Hong Kong’s shortage of coffins and overflowing morgues.

The highly transmissible Omicron variant has plunged Hong Kong from a zero-Covid city into having the world’s highest Covid fatality rate. As of Wednesday, the city had recorded more than 1.07 million cases, while over 6,500 people have succumbed to Covid-19 – the bulk of which were unvaccinated elderly people.

Local morgues ran out of space and the jump in demand for coffins was exacerbated after cross-border traffic with mainland China was disrupted when Shenzhen’s citywide lockdown went into force on March 13.

The record death rate also put a further strain on Hong Kong’s public hospitals, as refrigerated containers were brought in to store bodies.

Two refrigerating containers set at temperatures between one to two degrees above zero were seen outside the mortuary at Queen Elizabeth Hospital on March 4, 2022. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Shocking photos also emerged online this month showing bodies being stored next to living patients on a ward.

A photo verified by HKFP shows bodies next to patients on a ward at Hong Kong’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Jordan in early March. Photo: Internet.

That photo left an indelible mark on Albert Ko, board director of Forget Thee Not, who described the scene as what one would not expect to see in a developed city like Hong Kong.

“It was really something that we would only expect to see in places at war,” he said.

Filial piety

The Lingnan University academic told HKFP that it was important to properly store the bodies of Covid-19 patients, because the idea of filial piety – the Confucian virtue of honouring the elders in your family – is deep-rooted in a traditional Chinese society like Hong Kong. Families would want to see their late loved ones in a coffin, not a black plastic bag, Ko said.

Dr Albert Ko, board director of Forget Thee Not. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“We want to show respect for the people who passed… we hope to create some space for medics to have a healthier state of mind to do whatever they can,” the engineering scholar said.

The NGO said these eco coffins could be produced in around a hour and it had delivered two thirds of the 300 caskets as of last Saturday. The organisation may send more if funding allows, board director Ko said.

On Tuesday, the Food & Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) said more than 960 coffins had arrived in Hong Kong over the past four days to ease the high demand. Further batches of around 1,050 coffins are expected to arrive in the coming five days.

Model samples of eco coffins. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“The FEHD again expressed gratitude for the assistance from the Mainland, and will continue to co-ordinate proactively to ensure a stable supply of coffins in Hong Kong,” the government statement read.

The scramble for coffins in Hong Kong amid the fifth wave prompted the public to look into the greener alternative that had not previously been widely accepted in the city. A 2015 government audit report found that only 2 per cent of the 41,244 cremations of dead bodies conducted in 2014 involved the use of eco coffins.

Ko said that, while funeral supply shops have been legally required to display eco coffins as an option since 2008, most Hongkongers felt it was “disrespectful” to put their loved ones in a “paper coffin.”

Eco coffins produce less harmful gas emissions in the manufacturing and cremation process. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

It took years for Forget Thee Not to educate the public on the materials used in producing an eco coffin, which Ko said amounted to 80 per cent less material compared to that of a traditional wooden coffin. It therefore shortens the time required for an eco casket to be cremated and it produces close to 90 per cent fewer harmful gases during the cremation.

Ko said the public’s attitude towards eco caskets began to change in recent years, as the personalisation aspect of the eco coffins appealed to more people. Many would add lively and colourful designs to the casket, or even allow family and friends to leave final messages and draw on it, juxtaposing with the conservative attitude most Hongkongers have towards funerals and death.

“We hope to inspire people not to face death with fear, but to learn to plan their lives,” Ko said.

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Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.