Hong Kong’s funeral parlours have been unable to process all the deaths that occurred during the fifth wave of Covid-19, as health authorities reported that over 1,000 bodies remained unclaimed in public facilities awaiting funeral arrangements.

Director of Health, Dr Ronald Lam (right), accompanied by the the Consultant Forensic Pathologist-in-charge of the Department of Health, Dr Poon Wai-ming (left) inspected the new Fu Shan Public Mortuary on March 27. It is about to be completed and will store an extra 800 bodies. File photo: HK Gov.

The Department of Health issued a statement on Wednesday appealing to family members of the deceased to claim their bodies as soon as possible. The department said the identification procedures for some 1,800 bodies had been completed, but as of Wednesday there were still about 1,100 stored at its facilities.

Speaking on an RTHK radio show on Friday morning, Kwok Hoi-pong, the chairperson of the Funeral Business Association, said the city’s funeral services were already running at capacity. Kwok said that businesses in the sector estimated it would take two to three weeks to handle the unclaimed bodies.

Two refrigerated containers set at temperatures between one to two degrees above zero Celsius were spotted by HKFP outside the Queen Elizabeth Hospital mortuary. File photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

“Many families have already made reservations at funeral parlours… funeral services are already booked out to mid May, some until the end of May,” Kwok said. “Therefore, for the moment, most families are temporarily leaving the bodies in refrigerated units.”

According to Kwok, the city’s funeral parlours can handle around 120 bodies per day. He said although some parlours offer storage of the deceased, “most of them are seriously overloaded.”

At the peak of the fifth wave in early to mid-March, Hong Kong recorded around 290 deaths per day and had the highest Covid-19 death rate in the world. Hospital morgues and public mortuaries were unable to cope with the surge and images of bodies left in wards with patients and lining the corridors of health care facilities were widely shared.

Decomposing bodies

Kwok said that recently, a number of bodies had demonstrated a certain degree of decomposition by the time they arrived for funeral services.

According to the Department of Health statement, all cooling facilities in the body storage units “have been operating normally.”

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“Storing a deceased body at a cold storage facility over a long period will inevitably cause further deterioration of the facial and overall appearance of the deceased,” the spokesperson said.

Although the temporary refrigerated containers outside public mortuaries can maintain a suitable temperature under “normal” circumstances, Kwok said that these outdoor containers have been “exposed to sun and rain,” which may interfere with the temperature within and accelerate the decomposition of bodies.

He said the authorities could consider setting up tents above the containers to help them function better.

Kwok also said he hoped the government would take into account Hong Kong’s future demand and build a large-scale funeral parlour and more refrigerated facilities.

On Thursday, the city recorded 628 new Covid-19 cases and 26 related deaths. In total, Hong Kong has reported 1,200,334 Covid-19 infections and 9,212 related deaths since the start of the pandemic.

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.