Singapore Exhumes the Dead to Make Room for the Living
SINGAPORE — Singapore is exhuming tens of thousands of graves at the only cemetery open for burial in the city-state, part of a decades-old plan to recycle space for the dead and create more room for the living in the crowded territory.
The remains of 18,000 dead people at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery are being exhumed in the first, yearlong stage of the program, which began in December and is modeled on similar projects in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The bones are cremated in most cases, and placed in niches in a vault.
In June of next year, workers with shovels and drills will dig up another 18,000 graves at the cemetery, which opened in 1947, holds more than 200,000 graves and lies next to a military firing range on the western side of Singapore's main island, far from residential areas.
The policy limits the burial period for all deceased to 15 years, a recycling program that experts say will keep Choa Chu Kang open for at least another six decades.
The founders of modern Singapore, which has a population of more than 4 million and few natural resources, were keenly aware of space limits after independence in 1965. Cemeteries were seen as obstacles to development in what became one of the most affluent, business-savvy societies in Asia, and housing estates were built on some old grave sites.
"In the early 1970s, the government already had this plan that there will be only one cemetery left in Singapore," said Wong Chiu Ying, director of the exhumation program run by the National Environment Agency. Only Choa Chu Kang is open for business.
The government takes out newspaper ads to announce exhumation programs, inviting the public to come forward and identify late relatives. Unidentified remains are kept for three years, and then scattered at sea. In line with Islamic custom, Muslims are not cremated but buried in smaller plots.
"The public has understood that there's a need for Singapore to do this," Wong said Wednesday. "So far, we've not met anybody who insisted that they can't allow their ancestors to be exhumed. Some people do it on their own, they engage their own contractor. They can choose the date, and time."
Certain dates and times are considered auspicious in Chinese culture, and people often plan big family events such as weddings with meticulous timing.
Gravediggers at the 318-hectare (785-acre) Choa Chu Kang cemetery, some of whom followed their fathers into the business, spend up to two hours unearthing a grave. Older coffins have usually disintegrated, leaving just bones. Sometimes, the soil is waterlogged, and the decomposition of a body is not complete. On occasion, the team of 35 gravediggers finds jewelry, which is returned to the next of kin.
"The worker has to hack away the tombstone, and then dig six feet below ground, and then once they're four or five feet to where the bones will be, then they will be more careful," Wong said. "The workers do make sure they take out every single piece of bone and don't leave anything behind."
The dead at the 50 to 60 closed cemeteries in Singapore rest in peace for now, but that could change if the city needs more room.
"We won't disturb them unless there's a need for the land," Wong said.
Source: Associated Press