Hong Kong funeral homes ‘fully booked until mid-April’

Workers move bodies from a truck into a refrigerated shipping container outside a public mortuary in Hong Kong, China March 11, 2022. Refrigerated shipping containers have been set up outside some morgues, as Hong Kong struggles to cope with rising COVID-19 deaths. Jérôme Favre, EPA-EFE

Funeral homes are full until mid-April amid Hong Kong’s rising Covid-19 death toll, with the suspension of simple farewell ceremonies at hospitals and the long delay in processing death documents compounding the bottleneck, according to the operators.

The Hospital Authority, meanwhile, confirmed on Friday that photos online showing a number of bagged bodies placed next to patients on wards had been taken earlier. He apologized for the stress caused to patients and said the problem had been corrected.

Kwok Hoi-bong, chairman of the Funeral Business Association industry group, said the government needed to do more to address bottlenecks.

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“Even though the government has increased the capacity of cremation incinerators to between 260 and 280 corpses per day, it has not thought of other areas,” he said on a radio broadcast.

Kwok, who attended a meeting with government officials on Thursday, said funeral homes were full and most did not have slots available until mid or late April. Only 121 funeral homes were available in the city, he said, but the average daily death toll had reached around 200.

He said the authority should allow simple funeral services to be performed in the in-house service rooms of public hospitals for families to say their final goodbyes.

Twenty-four hospitals under the authority used to offer “farewell services” by providing a small room for relatives to hold simple memorial rites, and the bodies would then be taken directly to a crematorium or cemetery.

It could shorten funeral procedures, Kwok said, adding, “Some hospitals initially said yes, but not later, which is another blow to the families.”

This meant that some families were asking to wait a few days for services to be performed at funeral homes, which had long wait times.

Another problem was the government’s inability to issue death certificates quickly, Kwok said. The average time needed had dropped from three to four days to six to eight days during the pandemic, he added.

Leung Pak-wai, director of the Kowloon Funeral Home in Tai Kok Tsui, said some family members preferred to use the farewell service at hospitals because it was too risky to have a formal ceremony and few people came. would now feature during the coronavirus outbreak.

He acknowledged that long wait times for death documents compounded the problem, with one of his clients waiting 10 days.

Leung added that the delay would have a domino effect on all subsequent arrangements, with bodies being kept longer in already overwhelmed morgues.

Besides hospitals, Leung said his clients also need to obtain death certificates and cremation orders from relevant departments.

“We used to get documents within half an hour, but now we had to wait up to seven hours,” Leung said.

Tik Chi-yuen, legislator for the Welfare Constituency, suggested that the government second officials, especially senior staff, to hospitals to speed up administrative work such as issuing death-related documents.

“It seems to me that the bottlenecks are mainly caused by administrative procedures and work, but not by medical or technical problems,” he said.

A spokesman for authorities said some hospitals had set up temporary storage areas for bodies and increased staff to handle them.

He added that hospitals issue documents two to three days after a patient dies, except for cases that need to be referred to the coroner or undergo autopsies.

A Department of Health spokesperson said it had deployed additional manpower and extended working hours to cope with the growing workload.

Meanwhile, Dr Sara Ho Yuen-ha, the authority’s chief director, said the high number of deaths from Covid-19 complications had put enormous pressure on public morgues.

Commenting on images online showing bagged bodies kept in hospital wards with patients, she said the authority would uphold the principle of respecting the dead.

“The photos were taken earlier and the situation has been corrected,” Ho said. “The authority is facing an unprecedented challenge…we are very sorry for causing distress to the patients. Our colleagues are also very unhappy with the situation. We hope everyone understands.”

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