Real Estate for the Dead in Land-starved Singapore

I had my first encounter with death when I was four years old. My grandfather’s battle with cancer had come to an end and he was finally laid to rest beside a really old tree in Pusara Aman – Peaceful Cemetery. I remember thinking that someday way into the future, that tree would uproot and get removed but my grandfather would still be there.

I was wrong.

Like many others, the thought of dying comes with associations of finality to me, among them being finality of place; a last fixed location after a lifetime of moving about. But in the context of the world’s third most densely populated country, this is, of course, an unrealistic expectation.


Portion of Bukit Brown Cemetery being exhumed. (Source)

The matter of maintaining space for the dead became the centre of much national debate when it was announced in 2011 that the graves of Bukit Brown Cemetery were slated to be exhumed, and the space used for the construction of a road linking MacRitchie Viaduct to Adam Flyover. To put this into context, this cemetery was considered by many to be the largest Chinese cemetery, outside of China.

Yet this was not the first time that Singapore’s dead had given way to the living. Various burial grounds had previously been cleared to make way for the construction of buildings. For instance, Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station had been built over the grounds of an old Jewish cemetery that was established in the early 1800s and had been repossessed in 1983, and Ngee Ann City stands on the site of a former Teochew burial ground that had been established in 1845 and was cleared in 1957.

Further, in 1998, burial spaces were made officially impermanent with the National Environmental Agency’s introduction of a policy that limited the lease of graves to 15 years. After the lease expired, remains of the deceased would have to be exhumed.

From fields to fire

Before the HDB blocks and the condominiums, Bishan was a Chinese Cemetery called Kampong San Teng. (Source)

While today the practice of cremating bodies is rather common in Singapore, this method of handling the dead was originally met with much resistance. For the majority Chinese migrant community that had settled here, many of them still held on strongly to the belief that having a grave was essential because it was a method of continuing to honour their ancestors to whom they still owed a filial duty. Further, it was believed that their ancestors, who had the power to intercede in their favour for worldly matters, would not help them if they were not given a proper burial and would moreover wander as “hungry ghosts” rather than becoming benevolent ancestral spirits. Despite wanting to preserve land, British authorities were unable to control burial practices among the majority Chinese population and veer them towards cremation as their needs were sufficiently met by clan associations and thus the population could operate in a manner that was largely independent of the state and in defiance of its regulations.

After gaining independence, a 1965 Master Plan was created to better delegate land in Singapore for various uses. Under this plan, cemeteries were marked out as land that was “available for development”. In order to encourage the population to adopt cremation as a replacement for traditional burial practices, the state employed “funerary middlemen”, who were respected for their knowledge regarding death rites, to dispel the stigma that surrounded this new method of body disposal.

By 1972, this shift towards cremation became one that the state could more effectively encourage with the simultaneous declaration that it would shut down all cemeteries near and around the city area in order to conserve land, the implementation of a law that allowed for the “[closing of] cemeteries without assigning reasons for doing so” by the public commissioner, and the weakening of clan associations.

While the move towards accepting this method of dealing with the deceased was gradual, it eventually caught on and became part and parcel of conventional funeral rites for the majority of the Singaporean population. Testament to this was the expansion of the state’s first public crematorium on Mount Vernon which began with only one service hall when it first opened in 1962, and ended its term of service in 2018 with an additional seven halls that were constructed over the years to meet growing demand.

Shrinking graves 

For followers of religions like Judaism and Islam where burying the dead is mandatory, the problem of space constraints is a little more complicated. In the traditions of these faiths, both embalming and cremation are forbidden as they are considered to be practices that disrespect the body.

In the case of those who subscribe to such traditions or are personally opposed to cremation, bodies are allowed to be buried for up to 15 years before they are exhumed. The remains are then transferred into crypts such that eight times as many people can be placed in the same amount of space it takes to store a single newly buried body.

crypt_singapore_burial_info-2.pngAlternative disposal methods

Yet even with this general shift towards cremation, space constraints continue to remain a concern due to the size of columbariums and the fact that there is a limit to how much these can expand in land-scarce Singapore. As a result, further innovative alternatives to handling ashes upon cremation have been designed. Among these are the sea burial method which constitutes scattering ashes at sea, and a new option of scattering them on land, slated to be available to the public by 2020 – though these may not be viable approaches for a part of the population such as the Catholics who believe in the resurrection of the body and thus cannot scatter ashes in either manner.

Besides better solving the problem of space, these alternatives may also ease the burden on grieving families, with a sea burial costing about $480 inclusive of rituals, whereas placing ashes in a columbarium niche would cost at least $1200. In the face of concerns that the ashes released at sea would affect other users, the National Environmental Agency has clarified that the space designated for burials is not a recreational beach and that health risks are unlikely.

A Taoist sea burial. (Singapore)

In other parts of the world, even more innovative measures are being considered. For instance in New Zealand, a company is planning to import an environmentally-friendly machine from the United Kingdom that can dissolve a body into liquid and bones in just three hours at a lower cost than it takes to conduct a cremation. Of course, whether or not people are ready to have their loved ones turned into liquid is another matter.

Moving forward – with life

No matter where our inclinations lie with regards to cremation and burial, we have, as a society, come a really long way in adapting our expressions of sentimentality for the past to our needs for the future. Most certainly, this process of evolution in dealing with death is only going to continue. The question of giving up places like Bukit Brown Cemetery in exchange for progress is no easy one to answer, and I make no attempt to simplify it here. But I do wish to leave the reader with this closing thought:

I have not been to the crypt where my grandfather’s remains now lie. But he stays in my memory, clear as he always has been. Maybe this is enough to me personally, but not to someone else who has undergone a similar sort of loss – it is not something for me to judge; the emotional needs of different people are never uniform. But maybe sometimes it is not such a bad thing to let go of tangible traces of the past, so that we can make more (literal) space for the future.

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In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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