It wasn’t until I read a story by my friend Kirsten that I realized something–you don’t see cemeteries in Singapore. I guess I had assumed they existed, but were in less congested parts of the country than where we live.
As it turns out this is both true…and false.
Singapore is 1/2 the size of Los Angeles or 1/4 the size of Rhode Island, for a handy US based comparison of size. Total. The population topped 5 million about a year ago (source). By comparison, Los Angeles (which is twice as large) has a population of 4 million according to the 2010 census (source).
When the government needs space to build newer, bigger buildings older buildings are slated for destruction. As it turns out, so are cemeteries.
Bukit Brown will be the newest cemetery to fall to “gazetting.”
According to Wikipedia, the cemetery was established in 1840 (predating the establishment of Singapore as an independent nation by over a century) and by 1929, it served about 40% of the Chinese population in what would eventually be Singapore. The cemetery was closed in the 70’s. Soon the graves will be removed and housing will be built in that spot.
My friend Kirsten’s family is one of the many affected by the gazetting. She writes in a beautiful article (go read the whole thing)…
“Mrs Neo Pee Wan, died 26th April 1939, aged 47. Mr Neo Pee Wan, died 14th February 1958, aged 70.”
I stood staring at the gravestone, not quite knowing how to feel. These were my relatives, my family. Without them, I would not have my grandfather. I myself would not be alive. It was a little difficult to feel a connection, because I couldn’t picture them at all. I had never seen any photographs of my great-grandparents.
But I remember the stories my grandfather told me about them. About how his mother was an extremely musical woman with a “substantive lap” that he “rolled around on” as a child, and how his dad safeguarded his company’s money from the Japanese during the war (the amount of money involved increases with every retelling).
I also know how they died: my great-grandfather had a heart attack while combing his grandson’s hair. My grandfather went into the room after hearing the boy’s screaming, carried him to the sofa and was holding him when he died.
My great-grandmother died young. The doctor said it was hemorrhagic fever. “We stood around the bed and she was giving us a talk about family bonding,” my grandfather recalled. “Her parting words were, ‘When the day is finished, then I’ll go.’ She passed away almost exactly at midnight.”
She also says that…
To me, the stories my grandfather tells of his childhood days in Singapore are almost like fairytales. I can barely identify with them, because I cannot picture the open spaces of the kampungs, the images of children swinging from tree to tree like little Tarzans.
Listening to these stories, I often wish that I had the chance to see the Singapore he spoke of, feeling a nostalgia for a piece of Singapore’s history I never experienced, and never will.
“When you look around at Singapore, see how it’s changed, don’t you feel sad?” I asked him. “Don’t you feel sad to see the places you know disappear?”
“It can’t be helped, I suppose, unless you want to put the clock back,” he replied. “You can’t. That’s the price we pay for progress.”
Progress. It’s hard to argue with that. Everyone wants to move forward, everyone wants to develop and get better and better. I, too, feel that if we as a small country desperately need land for progress, then we don’t have much of a choice.
But then I think about the remnants of old Singapore that are disappearing one by one to make way for shiny glass-and-steel structures. I think about the lost backdrops to my grandfather’s childhood, and wonder if Progress will one day take the scenery of my childhood away too.
I think about my great-grandparents’ graves. Although my grandfather doesn’t mind their graves being exhumed to make way for development, I can’t help feeling a small sense of loss for a piece of family history, history that I was a little too late in discovering.
Apparently the gazetting of graveyards has been going on for a long time. People did initially protest the idea, but Lee Kuan Yew, the first leader of modern Singapore slated his own family’s graves to be among the first gazetted. Since then, it does seem like that while people are saddened by the idea, no one is upset.
This is difficult for me to understand. Coming from Boston and with a degree in history, where centuries old graveyards are among the featured stops on the Freedom Trail, right there in the middle of downtown Boston, it’s hard not to want to preserve graves. Art on grave markers is a really interesting field of history, and I’ve read several interesting books and articles on it. When we clear away a graveyard, what are we removing beyond the bodies?
I think about New Orleans and the “cities of the dead” that are so deeply part of the local culture. What would New Orleans be without the jazz funeral and the beauty of the cities of the dead?
On the other hand, as an atheist, I don’t have a strong attachment to graveyards that extends much beyond their historic value. I don’t worry that Singapore is going to unleash a curse a la every Stephen King novel. I may enjoy a good zombie flick, but I don’t think the zombie apocalypse will happen. I don’t particularly care about what happens to my physical body post-death. In fact, I hope that some of my body parts can help science, whether in the service of organ transplants (I’m a donor, and as the mom of a child who may one need an organ donation–E has a single kidney–I feel like it’s good karma, so to speak to be willing to donate mine), or helping medical students, or some useful purpose (even if it’s just helping fertilize the ground where my ashes are spread). But that’s my body.
I then go back and think about my grandmother’s grave. I was extremely close to her, and she passed away the summer before I began 7th grade. I was 11. I’ve been to her gravesite twice that I can remember in the intervening 21 years…once at her burial and once when Elanor was about 5 months old. In part because I couldn’t find the graveyard or the site without my grandfather’s assistance. But also because it is very difficult for me to go there. That doesn’t mean I’d be okay with the town of Monmouth, Maine just up and moving her gravesite or leveling the graveyard to build a condo.
It’s a complex discussion, and a layered one. At the end of the day, though, Singapore has few options when it comes to expansion. But I wonder what Singapore loses in not preserving its history.