London and Singapore-based Finbarr Fallon is a RIBA-nominated photographer who is known for his architectural photography. He has worked on a long-term photography project called “Dead Space” which uses his architectural sensibilities in order to create evocative imagery. Fallon shot a series of these twelve photographs over the course of five years in order to immortalize the vertical graveyards of Hong Kong.
In the very densely packed city of Hong Kong, space is a commodity. Therefore, in order to create the space for graves, cemeteries were built into the surrounding mountains, and today they loom ominously over the city. Many of the terraced burial sites were built during the 1980s as a desperate effort to find the room to put the deceased who were quickly running out of room within the city.
As a result, the government is very much in favor of and encourages cremation for this specific reason. In 2013, a whopping 90% of those who passed away chose to have their remains cremated. However, since the old Chinese traditions call for loved ones who have passed on to be buried close to their native home, there are still people who are desperate to get their family members a proper resting place.
When Fallon first came across the monumental cemetery in the Chai Wan neighborhood, he was quickly overwhelmed by the size of it. However, it also sparked something in him, and over the ensuing five years, he made it a point to explore different graveyards every time he visited Hong Kong.
Fallon told My Modern Met, “So much is written about how built-up Hong Kong is and I found it fascinating that extreme density and verticality are a defining characteristic of Hong Kong’s dwellings for both the living and the dead.”
Fallon’s “Dead Space” aims to highlight the repetitive symmetry where the hillside graveyards end up creating their own sort of cityscapes. Fallon used a telephoto lens and managed to capture how the architecture for both living and dead meet in unison. He kept the frame tight, juxtaposing the two environments in order to manifest that visual and emotional tension between them.
In Hong Kong, where the real estate prices are insanely steep, the very existence of the vertical cemeteries shows just how serious life after death is taken. Back in 2015, The Guardian released an estimate that relatives of those deceased can easily spend up to HK$30,000 for a private burial plot! If you think that cremation is any cheaper, there is a waiting list for public columbaria that spans about 4 years and can cost HK$3,000.
But the people are willing to pay the cost of keeping traditions alive. Very similarly to Day of the Dead in Mexico, Hong Kong does see public holidays such as the Qingming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, as well as the Chung Yeung Festival. These days are monumentally important days for families to visit gravesites. Not only are the burial sites cleaned, but families also bring offerings for their loved ones and spend time praying for their ancestors.
Given the cultural significance and importance, it’s no small wonder why there is precious real estate that is still being given to those who’ve passed on.