Bringing Up the Bodies / by Rachel Eva Lim


Faced with an extreme case of land scarcity, one of the world’s smallest and most prosperous countries implemented a state-sponsored program to exhume thousands of graves at a historical and beloved cemetery. The reason? To generate sufficient space to construct a major highway.

Bukit Brown Cemetery, a burial ground sitting on a roughly 495-acre plot of land in the city-state of Singapore, has seen better days. Clusters of graves sit on modest, verdant hills, dwarfed by dense and sprawling overgrowth from the surrounding landscape. The various granite headstones, many of which bear images of the deceased and elaborate Chinese inscriptions, are worn and weathered. Some are accompanied by tiny makeshift altars ringed with ashes—the remnants of visitors performing the traditional Chinese ritual of burning joss sticks and replica banknotes to pay their respects to the dead.

On a wooden table lies a pile of decidedly modern objects—crushed soda cans, empty plastic bags flailing in the breeze and a lone disposable spoon likely leftover from someone’s takeout lunch. In the distance, a towering crane punctuates the evening skyline—a stark reminder of the construction that’s overtaken this space in recent years, the result of a government-led initiative to exhume thousands of graves to free up land for new development.

Upon its founding in 1922, Bukit Brown was the largest public Chinese cemetery outside of China, and, within the next few years, accounted for nearly 40% of all officially registered Chinese burials within municipal limits. Although it was formally closed in 1973, today's Singaporeans largely regard it as an important gateway to traditional Chinese culture—about 75% of Singapore’s current population is ethnically Chinese—and one of the last remaining green pockets in this ultramodern metropolis.

Yet, more than 3,700 of the roughly 100,000 graves at Bukit Brown have been exhumed in stages to create space for an eight-lane highway that will slice through the formerly undisturbed site. Authorities made efforts to contact the deceased’s next of kin, and a list of names of those whose graves were dug up was also published online. Graves that remain unclaimed within three years of their date of exhumation will be cremated individually, and their ashes scattered at sea. Looking ahead, the government's national development wing has proposed to convert the entire cemetery into apartment buildings by 2030, which will result in tens of thousands more exhumations over the next decade.

This is far from an isolated incident. The practice of clearing graveyards to make way for everything from glitzy mega malls and private high-rise apartments to highways and affordable public housing has long been an integral, albeit rarely discussed, aspect of Singapore’s urban development policy. In 1978, the government announced plans to acquire all private cemeteries that were closed to new burials—which then made up around 1.5% of the country's total land area—exhume the respective graves and use the vacant land as sites for new development.

In 2011, Khaw Boon Wan, the former Minister of National Development, addressed the specific exhumation plans for Bukit Brown during a parliamentary session and emphasized the challenge of juggling development goals with conservation efforts. “Where development is needed, we will endeavor to exercise care and sensitivity to preserve our past," he said. "However, we must remain also no less committed to and responsible for meeting the practical living needs of our people."

While this may seem foreign and even sacrilegious to those living in countries with ample space, it’s a generally accepted—and, many would argue, necessary—part of life in Singapore. In a land-deprived nation that can barely fit its present population of over 5.5 million people within a total land area of 277 square miles, many traditional homes, heritage buildings and cemeteries have been razed in the nation’s quest to become an economic powerhouse with the newest, shiniest and most cutting-edge amenities.

At the same time, increasing numbers of Singaporeans are balking at the consequences of such rapid modernization—the loss of tradition, history and culture, along with ecologically-rich nature sanctuaries that have become increasingly scarce. Concerned citizens and grassroots activists have worked to promote the cultural and historic importance of Bukit Brown in an attempt to stave off future demolition. Last year, Edwin Pang published a letter in the country's leading newspaper that advocated for the cemetery's preservation by turning it into a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a sentiment echoed by former Nominated Member of Parliament Janice Koh at a 2013 parliamentary sitting.

All Things Bukit Brown—a volunteer conservationist group—recently launched an anthology of stories, essays and poems that flesh out the narratives of those interred at Bukit Brown during the Second World War. The organization also conducts frequent guided walks and tours for people to learn more about the area’s importance as a crucial site of cultural memory. However, as Singapore continues to bulldoze its way into the future, one can’t help but think that all these efforts, as noble as they may be, could all be for naught.

As first published in Crow Pie: The Death Issue