30 April 2011

Rent In Peace

“No real estate is permanently valuable but the grave.” Mark Twain might have thought twice about writing that had he lived in Singapore in 2011. I like learning about the ways of life in my adopted country and never thought much about death rituals here. However, when J came home from work exclaiming, “I heard cemeteries here rent burial plots!” I knew I had to dig deeper.

To begin my search, I let my fingers do the walking. I looked for funeral directors in the Yellow Pages (yes, the city-state has the same exact Yellow Pages and logo as in America). As I suspected, there were mostly Chinese establishments, but three names caught my eye: Casket Fairprice, The Resting Place, and Singapore Funeral Services (SFS). From the casket to the grave, these full-service companies have it all. SFS even has a Facebook page and a YouTube video.

One look at the three funeral directors’ websites showed me just how religiously diverse the local population is. Funeral services are available for Hindu, Muslim, Taoist, Buddhist, and Christian. If I searched longer I probably would have found a funeral package for Jainism. Cremation and columbarium are options as well as burials at sea (ashes only). Descriptions and prices were listed but no mention of burial plot rental fees.

With thoughts of a lease on the afterlife, J & I visited an abandoned Chinese cemetery. It wasn’t as if we expected to find For Rent or To Let signs dotted about the place. We heard Bukit Brown was more of a nature preserve than a cemetery. A personal deed to the land has kept it from joining the fate of 21 other cemeteries on the island. Land, being at a premium, and cemeteries considered a waste of space; hundreds of thousands of graves have been cleared to make way for public housing. Alas, “permanence” has an asterisk in Singapore.
Our driver dropped us off at the base of Bukit Brown. Many locals are intensely spiritual about cemeteries and only visit their dead relatives during the Ching Ming Festival or Hungry Ghosts Festival. The cabbie made no bones about it; he wouldn’t drop us off at the entrance. Thinking about the moved graves, we were feeling spiritual, too. We instantly quoted the scene in Poltergeist when Craig T. Nelson says, “You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies!” Since Bukit Brown is still a graveyard, we laid our worries to rest.

It was an enchanting place to have a stroll. The creeping jungle covered the old monuments and statues. A variety of birds flew and sang as expats exercised along the winding paths. Each grave site was formed by a low lying wall in the shape of a horseshoe. A headstone stood in the open end with a little stand for burning incense. The plots were scattered about the acreage in no special order that we could divine. The sprawling cemeteries and the need for land led the government to create the official New Burial System (NBS).

I unearthed the information about the NBS on the National Environmental Agency (NEA) website. Much like its US environmental counterpart, the NEA is responsible for everything green while maintaining the country’s development and quality of life. This government agency also licenses the funeral directors, crematoriums and columbaria. The NBS instructs the burial procedure while the NEA manages the process.

The grave conditions are clear. Out of the three remaining sites, Choa Chu Kang Government Cemetery is “the only cemetery in Singapore still open for business.” The plot itself isn’t dirt, rather it is a concrete crypt designed to “save space and make the cemetery more accessible.” On the day of a burial, next-of-kin pays a burial fee of $940 to the NEA. This secures a 15-year lease. When the lease is up, the remains are exhumed. If religion forbids cremation, then another site and lease will be made available. If not, the exhumed body is cremated. The ashes are delivered to the family or placed in a columbarium niche or prepared for a burial at sea. Together, the NBS and the NEA guarantees the cemetery land to last until 2130.

Death in Singapore is quite an undertaking!