Commentary: We treat the business of death like it’s dirty work
It’s still a long march for Singapore society before we can achieve dignity in death and funerals, says Ang Chin Moh Foundation founder Ang Ziqian.
SINGAPORE: Shiny skyscrapers shoot skywards in the green city-state of Singapore. Glistening air-conditioned shopping malls filled with top global brands money can buy. Numerous five-star hotels provide countless options for the weary traveller.
Despite all these trappings of modernity and grandeur, a very important aspect and essential service of Singapore society has failed to progress. Located in undignified and unforsaken places in the country are spaces and facilities for death and funerals.
THIRD WORLD FUNERAL FACILITIES & SERVICES
Singapore is a First-World country with Third-World funeral facilities. Singapore society still has a long way to go towards achieving dignity in dying, death and funeral facilities.
As a professional funeral director of over two decades, I have had the unenviable task of walking many families to receive their departed loved one at some hospitals, hospices and nursing homes.
As tears stream down their faces, amid painful sobs, I cannot help but feel the shame of indignity borne by grieving Singaporean families. Families receive their dead through loading bays, car parks and sometimes the same exits used by garbage. This most undignified way that the dead are handed back to their families for that final journey adds to the burden of grief.
OLD IDEAS ABOUT DYING HOLD US BACK
Singapore society inherited centuries-old rituals, superstitions and taboos surrounding death.
These unfounded fears have molded the way we treat our dearly departed on their final journey and where they are laid to rest, including rules governing where funeral facilities can be set.
These regulations have led to most funeral companies operating only in industrial parks like Sin Ming, Toa Payoh and Geylang Bahru. We treat the business of death like it’s dirty work to be located far away from livable spaces so that contamination of the living can be avoided.
Burial sites, columbaria and cemeteries are located in far-flung areas next to nature reserves or virgin jungle, far from the public eye.
Over the years, the dead have given up their resting space for the living. Cemeteries in Bishan, Holland and even Bukit Brown have made way for the living.
These areas are now thriving with up market condominiums and classy shopping centres including Junction 8, Holland V and Tiong Bahru. As the dead have made way for the living, can we not accept having our dead next to us?
Despite death being something all of us and our loved ones will have to confront at some point, we still spare little thought to spaces for the dead. Funeral facilities and places where we house our dead are seen as a dreadful place, a place of death, sadness, susceptible to hauntings.
This recoil away from any mention of death starts young. In Primary One when we all had to stand up and tell the class our father’s occupation, my classmates shunned me after I mentioned that daddy was a funeral director. They felt that bad luck would befall them if they shook my hand or touched me.
During Singapore’s early years, funerals used to take place in people’s homes where the community comes together to support the bereaved family.
Alive, we were a colleague, a friend, a family member, a member of society. When death occurs, it is the end of a physical life, but it is not an end to a relationship. Our living loved ones and families still cling onto the memories of us.
A funeral is a ceremony that commemorates our lives and its connections with and effects on others. It is also a time when the living honour the dead and commemorate their life experiences and values
Today, despite the fact that funerals are very often held at void decks or multi-purpose halls of HDB flats, many Singaporeans are still against the idea of a columbarium or funeral service hall located near their homes. This is a huge not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndrome that we have to work against now before it is further entrenched, making it harder for land planners to locate these facilities in the community.
CHANGING FOR THE BETTER
This negative mindset on dying, death and funerals in Singapore must change for the better. This starts with public education.
The Ang Chin Moh Foundation has over the years embarked on several public education campaigns on dying, death and funerals, working with the Lien Foundation and aged-care support groups, hospitals and government agencies.
With the "Die-Die Must Say" campaign, we had a roaming getai to deliver messages of dying, death and funerals through dark humour, to five locations with more than 13,000 coming to watch the shows. It brought home the message, especially among older audiences, that talking about dying, death and funerals is not going to bring on your early demise or bad luck.
People must understand that death is an integral part of life and planning helps alleviate the pain their beloved go through.
This point was brought across by two famous getai hosts, one of whom even went as far to have his picture emblazoned in front of a hearse and flashed on to the screen, to normalise the idea of death.
Dying is a natural part of life, but many of us do not talk about it.
What are our options if we want to die with dignity? How can we plan for the end, regardless of our age? How can we talk to our loved ones about our values and choices?
To educate people about what it means to live well, and leave well, we also ran a community engagement project "Both Sides, Now" that used drama, immersive art experiences, video and photography to bring these messages over a three-year period to the heartlands of Singapore, where over 20,000 visited the project.
OPEN UP MORE SITES WITHIN THE COMMUNITY TO CHANGE MINDSETS
There have been no new long-term leases available in Singapore for the last 20 years or more for funeral companies.
The last were two sites in Old Choa Chu Kang, zoned as columbariums in 1997 and 1999. One of the two has funeral parlours but suffers low occupancy due to its remote location away from populated community areas.
READ: The dead need a place too in land-scarce Singapore, a commentary
The NEA and other government agencies face huge challenges in locating funeral facilities anywhere near to the community. They have to balance between unhappy public voices and national needs.
Their recent announcement that four new funeral parlour sites in different areas around the island will be launched for development over the next decade is a baby step in the right direction but is not enough when these are still located in industrial or far-flung areas.
These new sites may help cope with rising demand, but will not completely meet the true needs of a dignified send-off.
READ: Funeral parlours welcome new sites but say some locations could present challenges
Continuing to locate funeral facilities in industrial sites is going to further entrench the NIMBY Syndrome. It will create an uphill task for authorities to plan the proper use of land in Singapore for future generations. We must bring these back into the community.
BETTER WAYS TO SAY GOODBYE
We need society to prioritise places where people can say goodbye to their dead.
Recognising that death is a part of life helps us to reconcile with loss and live our lives today more meaningfully. It is also a good reminder that time is not infinite in a person’s life.
Funerals and funerary facilities continue our relationship with the departed and are integral to how we can achieve closure. Modernising these spaces with purposeful design and development can be a useful first step in shifting mindsets.
READ: Cemeteries should be more than where the dead reside, a commentary
A recent architectural design contest, "Land for the Living, Space for the Dead" commissioned by Ang Chin Moh Foundation together with the Department of Architecture at the National University of Singapore unearthed fresh ideas of how Singapore can have funeral service halls and columbaria located discreetly in these parks or sitting in harmony within community areas.
A serene and tranquil environment with lush greenery helps in the grieving process.
There is a growing sense that locating the dead nearer to the living can give a sense of normalcy to those grieving for their loved ones.
In another international Design for Death competition, over 2,000 ideas from 96 countries surfaced include moving cemeteries into the city centre as parks. Instead of tombstones, each burial plot will sprout a tree as a sign of remembrance for each departed individual.
Second, let’s consider locating funeral services in the community. Locating funeral services in North, South, East, West and the city is not just a matter of providing convenience to those who mourn, but also the idea that funeral services fill a community need.
Instead of industrial parks for funeral service halls, we could afford to locate them in the many parks around Singapore. These parks are used during the morning and evening and rarely at night.
Third, let’s rethink how we house our dead. Cremation allows cremated ashes to be efficiently stored in urns and occupy less space, hence, fueling a trend away from burial, which saddles families with trauma when they have to go through a subsequent exhumation.
Funerals are a necessary part of mourning. Scattering the ashes at sea or on designated land areas can be a meaningful ritual that also reduces the space demand crunch.
At the same time, families can keep a portion of the ashes as special mementos, whether as memorial diamonds or other beautifully designed jewelry. These can be kept at home at a family altar or passed down as heirlooms.
There will be no need to fight and jostle in traffic jams, argue over car parks, go through overgrown undergrowth and be bitten by mosquitoes once a year during festivals such as Ching Ming or All Souls Day.
Apart from being a beautiful memento to hold on to during our most vulnerable moments, as Singaporeans become increasingly cosmopolitan, family members can hold onto a treasured jewel of their departed ones even if they’re halfway around the world.
It will take a whole community to help a family overcome grief.
Grief, while highly personal, can have a debilitating impact on society. Locating funeral services and homes for the dead in our communities can provide a strong shoulder for the bereaved to lean on.
The only way forward to erase this negativity that shrouds dying, death and funerals is for Singapore to have a national conversation on everything that linked to it.
Public education can reshape entrenched mindsets towards positive outcomes. This is going to benefit our future generations.
Ang Ziqian is founder of the Ang Chin Moh Foundation.