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High-Rise Dying Transcript

Chris This is Home on the Dot. Welcome to the Columbarium. This is what it sounds like, to make an offering to the dead.

Jia Han’s Father 拿一个盘子放水果。纸袋放这边。

Jia Han’s Mother 把那些食物拿出来,然后罩打开它。

Chris Removing fish, rice and fruit from the plastic bag.

Jia Han’s Mother 筷子跟汤匙排好,然后挺好它。

Jia Han 那个杯要去洗吗?

Jia Han’s Mother 拿杯去洗一洗,然后泡一杯咖啡。

Chris Making a cup of coffee for the deceased and ensuring the chopsticks are ready.

This is the sound of one of our student-producers, Toh Jia Han, and his family offering a symbolic meal to his deceased grandparents at the Toa Payoh Xiu De Shan Tang columbarium. It is one of many such places around the island that provide a final resting place for Singaporeans.

Jia Han The main hall of the columbarium is filled with ancestral tablets, which line the walls in rows upon rows. Ancestral tablets are red, and about 30 centimeters tall. Each has the name of the deceased on it. When I go to the columbarium with my extended family, we pack food from home and lay out a meal on the communal tables in front of my grandparents’ tablets.

After the food has been laid out, we burn three joss sticks, one after the other. This is a traditional method of keeping time before the dead are considered finished with their meal, and each joss stick takes about 10 minutes to burn. While waiting, we sit around the open common area, reading the newspaper, and making small talk. I’ve even brought homework before to the columbarium. After the joss sticks burn down, we eat the food in a common area, before we all go our separate ways.

Chris This is Home on the Dot, the podcast from the National University of Singapore about the power and meaning of home in today’s world. I’m Chris McMorran. In this episode, Jia Han, a recent NUS graduate in Japanese Studies, talks about columbaria. For those unfamiliar with the word, it’s a building that stores the ashes of the dead. 

Instead of the horizontal grid of a cemetery, where gravestones mark the final resting place of those buried beneath, picture a vertical grid; a wall of small niches that each hold an urn. Then picture wall after wall of such niches, all housed in a single building that stands multiple stories tall. In some columbaria, the overall impression is of a library, or a building full of safety deposit boxes. For the uninitiated, it can feel quite impersonal. So what does the columbarium have to do with home? 

Over the years teaching my course on Home, I’ve read some great papers about columbaria. One thing students emphasize is how people gather at the columbaria to share a meal with their relatives. It may not be a joyous occasion like a birthday party or a Lunar New Year reunion dinner at a relative’s home, but the columbarium provides a space for important events that cement family ties.

Students also emphasize how people decorate the otherwise bare niches that contain the ashes of their relatives. They bring photographs, flowers, and when possible, small decorations like miniature bowls of fish ball soup made of plastic (People sometimes decorate the niche with meaningful objects, such as mini plastic versions of their loved one’s favorite food) all to personalize these spaces. Just as we make a house into a home by personalizing it; hanging personal photos, painting the walls a favorite color, using furniture that has been in the family for years; the living personalize columbarium niches to reflect the personalities of the deceased. 

Students point out that in land-scarce Singapore, the needs of the living and the dead are often in direct conflict, particularly when cemetery plots are exhumed and the remains are cremated and moved to columbaria in order to make way for new roads and new homes. 

But most intriguing is the way columbaria resemble the high-rise public-housing blocks that are home to more than 80% of the Singaporean population. Both involve the same vertical, compact solution to a lack of space on this tiny island. Both lead to a standardized final product, so that from a distance it may be difficult to distinguish one apartment or one columbarium niche from another. However, both spaces become deeply meaningful to the people who use them and make them their own. 

Both are logical, space-saving solutions, making everyone equal in both life and death. Indeed, the reality for most people in Singapore is not just high-rise living, but high-rise dying.

In this episode, Jia Han introduces us to the columbarium. He provides a brief history of burial practices in Singapore and discusses policies that have drastically altered these practices. They have led to more Singaporeans finding an eternal resting place in a columbarium instead. He shares his own columbarium experiences, as well as those of his parents, who explain what they do on a typical visit. Then he speaks with Bernard Chen, a Singaporean funeral director on a mission to encourage people to think more proactively and positively about death, instead of treating it like a taboo topic. We all die eventually. Planning for that fact can have profound impacts on how we think about life, and how we think about home. 

Stay tuned.

Jia Han Prior to 1857, the colonial Government in Singapore exerted little control over the burial places of the local communities. John Turnbull Thomson, then the Governor Surveyor, described Singapore thus:

(Quote) “A few days will suffice to convince strangers in Singapore that native burial-grounds are to be met with in all directions. These are generally much neglected, and are overgrown with weeds and scrub, and often they are desecrated by the unsympathising Christian, Mahomedan, or Pagan, as may be. Roads are recklessly carried right through the bones of the original native settlers, and crowded streets now traverse the sacred places where many of the Singapore primeval worthies are laid in their last homes. Such sights were often to be seen of fresh human bones and coffins and humus sticking out of the sand by the roadsides”. (End Quote)

A century later, the newly post-colonial government still had to contend with cemeteries in all directions. It made decisive moves to take land occupied by burial grounds, especially of Chinese communities, in order to build public housing. The government was firm, but made concessions such as delaying exhumation and providing alternative, smaller spaces for the relocation of graves. In other words, some cemeteries had to be moved to make space for the homes of the living. 

At the same time, the state began to encourage cremation. Despite the fact that it was rarely done by the majority Chinese population, it was seen as the only viable solution to a land-scarce nation hoping to grow both its economy and population. According to (the) Ministry of Community Development statistics, before 1965, 89.8% of Chinese dead were buried, while 10.2% were cremated. By 1988, only 31.9% were buried, while 68.1% were cremated. This was a major shift encouraged by the state and intended to make more efficient use of Singapore’s limited space. 

Geographer Brenda Yeoh writes that this encouragement was not done in a confrontational manner. She cites 3 main factors which resulted in this drastic switch. Firstly, the weakening hold of traditional beliefs concerning death. Secondly, the drastic increase in availability of crematoria and columbaria. Thirdly, funeral managers, who were perceived as experts on burial practices, were able to ameliorate distrust in the Chinese community.

Before this project, I knew nothing about how the dead were managed in Singapore. All I knew was that I go with my family to the columbarium a few times every year.

In recent years, my mother has been very understanding of the university workload. She allows me to pass on columbarium visits when I’m busy. And even when I make the effort to go at least once a year, I’m spared the preparation that my mother and her 3 sisters undertake before each visit.

Jia Han’s Parents 我们一年回去拜几次。他们的忌日,然后还有清明,七月。这次的是新年。Ah, then 还有新年 lor。 算是主要的节日 lor。[We go to the columbarium on their deathdays, during Qing Ming (or Tomb Sweeping Day), during the Hungry Ghost festival, and also over the Chinese New Year period.]

Jia Han’s Mother 先会想一下说要煮些什么 lah, 不过阿公阿嫲有四个孩子 mah, 所以有一些东西我们就订了 la, 好像大姨她就会负责饭,还有金银纸 lor. Then 二姨就会负责买鸡鸭,还有酒,茶。Then 其他的,如果我们要煮的话就自己想自己要煮什么就煮什么去拜 lah. 不过我们大多数会 like, coordinate 一下,就是说有些人是煮菜,有些人是煮鱼,then 水果这种。[We think about what we should cook. Grandma and Grandpa have 4 children, so some things are already fixed. My eldest Aunt is in charge of cooking the rice and bringing joss paper. Second Aunt will buy the chicken and duck, and bring the wine and tea. For my mother and Fourth Aunt, they might cook vegetables and fish, or bring fruits.]

Jia Han The table space at the columbarium is limited, so we have to squeeze with other people. If we’re early we can get a space right in front of my grandparents’ plaques, otherwise, we have to set up a bit farther away, even on the next table. Sometimes we stand around if it seems like someone is about to leave. It’s quite an informal and awkward way of negotiating space, uncannily similar to how we secure tables at Singapore’s famous hawker centres.

Jia Han’s Parents 就 set up 那些食物然后就。倒好那些酒啊茶啦,而且还有准备一杯咖啡,以前那个咖啡是… 那个咖啡是for阿嫲的,因为阿嫲是有喝咖啡的,所以for阿嫲我们就有拜咖啡,阿公我们就没有,只是酒跟茶而已。[We set up the food, and then pour the wine and tea. We also prepare a cup of coffee for my Grandmother, my Ah Ma, because she drinks coffee, while my Grandfather, my Ah Gong doesn’t.]

所以大多数是大姨比较懂这些礼俗,她就会先去点那个蜡烛跟烧香,然后就去拜这些佛主还有同时门神,then 跟那个门神说:“今天是阿公的忌日,我们要请阿公出来吃。” 所以要通知那个门神 that 让他可以… [My eldest aunt is most familiar with the traditions, so she is usually the one to light the required candles and joss sticks as an offering to the keeper of the dead, and invite the spirit of my grandparents out, to partake in the meal we have prepared.]

Jia Han Ma makes the effort to ensure the food is hot and fresh. Fruits like grapes will be washed, rice will be packed separately and covered with aluminium foil. Hot water is available at the columbarium to make a hot cup of coffee for the dead. We lay it all out like a proper meal. For me, the way we lay out food reminds me of home. The care and effort that my family puts into the preparation is their way of showing filial piety and remembering our ancestors.

But coexistent with these acts of filial piety is a greater state logic and population sentiment that is cold. I spoke to Bernard Chen, who finished his masters in History at Oxford before beginning his career as a funeral director at 29 years old.

Bernard Chen So think about this problem. If you’re lying in a hospital – let’s say my mother is lying in a hospital, she’s about to pass on – the nurses will do all they can to render care and concern to this person who is lying on the hospital bed. Wipe her clean, feed her food, make sure medicine is administered to her on a regular basis… The moment she dies, she’s no longer human. She’s a statistic. She takes up the hospital bed, and therefore she has to be taken away as soon as possible, so that I can release the bed. Is this the kind of Singapore you want your children to grow up in? Absolutely not.“

Jia Han Last year, Mount Vernon Columbarium closed to make way for the new Bidadari public housing project. The only public cemetery in Singapore, Choa Chu Kang Cemetery continues to exhume graves a mere 15 years after burial, a policy that began in 1998. Deathscapes like columbariums and cemeteries continue to be stigmatised and suffer from “Not in my backyard” syndrome. But not making the dead a priority has consequences.

Bernard Chen If you want a reference point, Hong Kong is the best reference point for Singapore. If we do not meet the challenges that we are confronted with at this point in time within the context of an ageing population, we will be faced with the problem of Hong Kong. Such as, you have to wait before your loved one gets cremated. Anywhere between two weeks and eight weeks. After which you have to wait for a columbarium space, between six months to three years.

Are we going to end up like Hong Kong, in the next 20 to 30 years time, when one in four Singaporeans are 65 years and above, which is 2030, which is the population planning parameters of Singapore, where will we be? If my mother pass on today, does she need to stay in the mortuary for the next 2 weeks before someone from a funeral company picks her up? Not because nobody wants to take my business, but because they don’t have the resources. Is this a valid concern? Yes!

Jia Han I’m ashamed to say that I had never thought about these issues, but I would hate to have to wait on funerary rites for my parents’ inevitable passing. Even as Bernard confronts me with these issues face-to-face, I still find it a difficult topic to think about.

Bernard Chen In a modern society like Singapore, whether it’s pragmatic or otherwise, there is a complacency inherent within this concept called life and living. You go about each day not expecting that death is going to knock on your door anytime soon. Precisely because of that, there is a neglect, there is an ignorance of any issues pertaining to dying, death, and the funeral profession. So do I blame the policymakers? No. I can’t. And it’s not fair. Because there is a perception, or misconception, that the priorities of the living are more important than the priorities of the dead.

Jia Han Bernard points out that the dead affect the living in many ways. For the living left behind, their pain and sorrow needs to be dealt with sensitively, by a funeral industry that is professional and human. Beyond that, it is also about remembering our history and the people who have contributed to our nation’s development.

Bernard Chen So what kind of home, what kind of sense of home and belonging-ness, what kind of sense of identity are you trying to encourage? As I mentioned: How a country, how a nation-state, how a society deals with death in its needs speaks volumes of the values of that particular society and that particular nation.

Jia Han Having laid out the problem so clearly, I ask Bernard about his work, and also the future he envisions for Singapore’s policies on death.

Bernard Chen For one of the most educated populations in this world, Singapore is one of the most death illiterate societies. So where is all this work going to? Building Singapore’s soft power from a citizenry point of view, encourage greater public policy discussion on the funeral profession, dying, palliative care, death in Singapore, and most importantly to equip all Singaporeans with basic information and knowledge on what to do when a death occurs.

For me, one that includes and integrate the dead into our needs. And I think this is something that is meaningful and is a work that requires us to change attitudes. Change worldviews of the people. Through education, through different practices. And over time, with each succeeding generation, people will come to see the importance of the work that we do. So the work that I do usually don’t have a very immediate KPI [Key Performance Indicator]. But when you eventually face a death in your family, you eventually come to recognise the importance of why I’m here for you. And that again goes back to that fundamental, and most ironic, hypocrisy that we have all displayed. That there is no plans to build a mortuary school. But when push comes to shove, I’m dying to get a funeral director who can lead me in the right direction. I have never seen a more unprepared sector in Singapore society than the funeral profession. And it is especially ironic, and in Chinese very 讽刺, given that our government pride itself on long-term planning. Where’s the long-term planning in death? Long-term planning for death is concurrently a long-term strategic planning for the population at large, for the living, for generations that will come after you, and generations that have not yet even been born.

Jia Han Bernard is resolute that more can be done by the state to address the issues surrounding death. He thinks that if we cared about it enough, then issues like land constraint would become convenient excuses that are easily addressed. If we could only look past antiquated cultural inhibitions, and embrace our heritage and history. I find Bernard’s views strong, even controversial, and deeply thought-provoking, even if I have my doubts about their prescience and practicality.

As a child, I remember I stared curiously at funerals at the void deck, as we walked pass from our block to the bus stop. My mother always scolded me and told me not to look. Why? I would ask. “I don’t know.” she would reply. “It’s not respectful.” “Why?” I would ask. She had no answer.

I wish curious children would be invited to ask questions about funerals. I wish they were welcomed, and perhaps the grieving family would tell a child about the things that the deceased had done for them. Like Bernard, I hope that death can be spoken of openly, in a healthy manner of acceptance, rather than hushed up and ignored. Before I spoke to Bernard, I had scarcely considered that death was so intimately tied up with the living. How we treat them truly reflects on our own social values. Are the dead merely a public hygiene concern and a waste of space? As for myself, I will begin by trying to broach the topic of death with my own family and try to pave the way towards a more open approach to death.

Chris In his interview Bernard asks what kind of home, what kind of identity Singaporeans want to create, and he makes it clear that the way we think about and plan for death says a great deal about how we think about home. On this tiny island nation, the living have to find ways to coexist with the dead, or we threaten to destroy this place we call home.

When we make offerings to the dead, we demonstrate our continued ties to them. We coexist as best we can and make them a part of our lives. In fact, such ritual practice can continue to keep us together. 

One of my students may have put it best when he said: “The columbarium is built to house the dead, but when the living gather there in remembrance, they bring it to life.” But we have to prepare now as a nation in order to keep the dead in our lives in the future.

This episode was written and produced by Toh Jia Han, with sound design by Johann Tan and David Chew. 

To hear more about Jia Han, check out the Economical Rice Podcast, hosted by Danny Chrisnanto Koordi. It’s a great interview podcast based in Singapore, which will feature Jia Han later this year. And if you want to hear more information about columbarium in Singapore, check out 99% invisible.  It’s one of my absolute favorite podcasts out there, and in mid-2019 they did an episode called Life and Death in Singapore. It’s episode #359. In it, they spend a lot of time talking about the history and design of columbaria.

Special thanks today to Jia Han’s family for sharing their reflections about columbarium, and to Bernard Chen for encouraging us to think more deeply and proactively about death. 

Check out our blog to access transcripts for all our episodes, as well as photos, and links to news and academic articles on every topic. The address is: tinyurl.com/homeonthedot. We’re also on Facebook. Just search for Home on the Dot. 

And as always, thanks for listening.

Published in Transcripts S2

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