SINGAPORE - Eternal peace does not last long in Singapore.
Starting early next year, workers with heavy machinery will begin constructing an eight-lane highway across the small country’s oldest surviving major cemetery, overriding the objections of nature lovers and heritage buffs.
Singapore, with its 5.3 million people crammed onto an island less than half the size of London, is already more densely populated than rival Asian business centre Hong Kong, making permanent burial space unfeasible.
The whole of Bukit Brown - the resting place of more than 100,000 people, including some of Singapore’s pioneering business and clan leaders and their large, intricately carved tombs - will eventually be used for residential development. At least 30 people buried there have streets named after them.
Some families have begun removing the remains of their ancestors, and authorities plan to dig up the remaining graves in January.
But Nature Society (Singapore) and other groups want Bukit Brown left alone, describing the forested area as “a natural and historical treasure trove”. Another body, the Bukit Brown Community, has been conducting weekly tours to raise awareness of the area’s rich past.
“There is no other cemetery like Bukit Brown. The amount of historical information that we can find there and the amount of Chinese culture, heritage and custom is unique,” said Raymond Goh, a founding member of Bukit Brown Community.
Photographer Shawn Danker, who recently held a photo exhibition to generate awareness about Bukit Brown, cites as an example pre-independent Singapore’s links to the Nationalists who overthrew the Ching Dynasty in 1911.
On the headstone of community leader Tan Boon Liat’s grave are 12 rays of sunlight, showing his longtime association with Sun Yat Sen’s Kuomintang whose logo is a white sun with twelve rays on a blue background.
Tan, who died in the 1930s, was a great grandson of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, for whom one of Singapore’s largest hospitals is named.
“If there is any Singapore site that is worthy of UNESCO nomination, it is Bukit Brown,” said Bukit Brown Community’s Goh, referring to the United Nations body whose Heritage Site designations are keenly sought for the boost they can give to tourism.
In 1998, the Singapore government announced a policy to limit the burial period to 15 years. Bodies are then dug up and either cremated or interred in small plots to save space in the case of Muslims and other groups whose religions require burials.
“The above measures have helped to intensify the land use at the cemetery and overcome our land constraints,” a spokeswoman for the National Environment Agency said.
Term limits for graves are even stricter in Hong Kong, which requires the removal of bodies from public cemeteries after six years. If families do not remove the remains, authorities will exhume and cremate them, burying the ashes in a communal grave.
Singapore’s environment agency says more people are opting for cremation over burial, with the proportion rising from 66 percent in 1992 to 80 percent in 2011. That is nearly the entire population if those whose religions require burial are excluded.
Ang Jolie, funeral director at Ang Yew Seng Funeral Parlour, whose customers are mostly Chinese, who make up about 75 percent of Singapore’s population, said the need to remove the body after 15 years is the main reason why many opt for cremation.
“The younger generation is more pragmatic and they may not want to trouble the future generations with the exhumation,” she added.