Space-starved Asian cities exhume graves to make space, including Singapore’s own ‘living museum’ Bukit Brown cemetery

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Photo: Facebook screengrab/ All Things Bukit Brown

In Singapore, the rest of the dead is interrupted to make space for the living. Bukit Brown Cemetery has been the location of approximately 100,000 graves, but more than 4,000 of those resting places have been exhumed since to make way for an eight-lane highway.

The reassignment of the land is not a new phenomenon for Singapore. After all, even the country’s best-known shopping district—Orchard Road—is built on old graveyards. But a campaign to preserve Bukit Brown cemetery has arisen, with concerned individuals vowing not to lose a sense of heritage and history, as what has happened with other cleared cemeteries in the country.

Bukit Brown is historically significant due to the fact that hundreds of early immigrants from China are buried there. The area is also important for its place in Singapore’s history during World War II, particularly during the Japanese occupation.

However, as reported in a recent Reuters article, Bukit Brown has been “scheduled to be cleared for housing by 2030.” Volunteers with an advocacy group to save the cemetery, All Things Bukit Brown are resisting this plan. Darren Koh calls the area a “living museum” and said, “We lost a lot of history and heritage in the other cemeteries that were cleared, so we were galvanized into action to save Bukit Brown.”

Officials have acknowledged the challenges of having enough space in Singapore. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said in a statement that hard choices need to be made. “Planning for long-term land use in land-scarce Singapore often requires us to make difficult decisions.” Authorities have also acknowledged the need for balancing protecting heritage and history with housing needs.

After the announcement that over 4,000 graves would be exhumed, many Singaporean citizens took action both online and offline, by making their feelings known on social media and signing up for historical walks at Bukit Brown cemetery.

Moreover, the cemetery was the first Singaporean site to be added to the World Monuments Watch, a list of threatened heritage sites. This resulted in a letter written by the United Nations Special Rapporteur for cultural rights to the government of Singapore, to save Bukit Brown’s “remarkable natural, cultural and historical value.”

However, the exhumations continued to take place, and by last October, an initial section of the new highway was opened.

Another volunteer for All Things Bukit Brown, Claire Leow, says, “We shouldn’t always have to choose between heritage and development. More people are choosing to be cremated; it’s all the more reason to preserve Bukit Brown as a public space for all.”

The remains from the exhumed graves at Bukit Brown were cremated, with ashes placed in urns in a columbarium. Each grave also needed to be documented.

A fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Hui Yew-Foong, spearheaded the process. “Without such documentation and research, it is difficult to assess the heritage value that is at stake and make informed decisions. And if the government does make the decision to clear the cemeteries, at least a good record is made for posterity.”

While many of the graves went unclaimed because of the passage of time, some were claimed by families. In relation to this, Leow said, “Cemeteries should not be seen as a waste of space but as a part of our history and culture. In losing them, we lose little bits of ourselves.”

But Singapore is hardly the only Asian country where such the graves of the dead are cleared for the living. This has been particularly challenging for communities with citizens of Chinese descent since culture and tradition dictate that burial is the right way, and without it, souls are fated to wander as “hungry ghosts.” From Taiwan to China to Hong Kong, cities have faced the problem of reconciling tradition with practicality.

Cremation is now more and more popular, with columbaria erected to house urns. However, even with these facilities reaching full capacity, citizens are now encouraged to spread their departed loved ones’ ashes in the seas, forests or parks.

Singapore now has a 15-year limit on burial periods. After this time, remains are either cremated to transferred to less spacious plots. In Hong Kong, the limit is now 6 years. Taiwan also burial limits and its officials have actively called for eco-burials and cremations as alternatives to traditional burials.

Perhaps it is China where the change has been most drastic. In 2014 the government announced that it aimed for a 100 percent cremation rate by the end of next year, 2020. Online memorials have also been encouraged, where websites for a family’s dearly departed can be set up, and offerings made to them at the yearly Qing Ming “tomb sweeping” festival.

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