Raising the Dead in Crowded Singapore


L.F. Yong starts digging bodies just after dawn. On an average day, he and his team of 20 workers will crack open 40 graves and empty them of their bones by noon.

Yong is responsible for the hands-on work in a government project to clear Bidadari Cemetery, one of the largest Christian burial grounds in Southeast Asia. The project will convert the resting place for 58,000 dead into 12,000 centrally located, high-rise apartments for the living.

The project is fueled by crowded Singapore’s hunger for land. The tiny island, nestled between Malaysia and Indonesia, covers 251 square miles and has 4 million residents.


In Singapore, government housing, highways and rapid transit lines have been creeping ever closer to Bidadari Cemetery and will take over within 10 years when the apartments and a new subway station are completed.

For now, the oasis of frangipani trees and rolling hills remains peaceful. Rows of gravestones and marble statues are spread over 64 acres, their epitaphs engraved in a dozen languages, including Chinese, English, Portuguese, Japanese and Hindi. The word Bidadari itself comes from “widyadari,” a type of Hindu nymph.

Over the last two decades, the government has exhumed more than 36 cemeteries of different races and religions. Bidadari, one of the largest to be cleared, contains the remains of 58,000 Christians buried between 1907 and 1972, with most interred before 1951.

An additional 68,000 bodies will be exhumed from a neighboring Muslim section and reburied elsewhere.

All unclaimed Christian remains will be cremated by the government and, unless the ashes are claimed within a year, they will be scattered at sea. Christian families that want to rebury remains must pay for it, but the government is reburying remains from faiths that ban cremation, including Muslims, Jews and Parsis.

Since March 2001, Singapore has published numerous notices about the exhumation in newspapers here and in Australia, Britain and Malaysia, but only 9,449 bodies have been claimed.

Once those remains are exhumed, Yong’s team will start digging up and cremating the unclaimed, said Sum Foong Yee, a spokesman for the Housing and Development Board, which is overseeing the project.

In many cultures, cemeteries are considered landmarks and even tourist attractions, but not in traditional Chinese communities, noted Scottie Oakley, an American who is a guide at Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum and is helping produce a picture book to preserve Bidadari’s history before the bulldozers roll in.

Oakley said many Chinese, who make up 75% of Singapore’s population, will not visit friends after paying respects at family plots because they feel it’s bad luck.

“I could spend an afternoon in a cemetery, but in this culture that would not happen,” she said.

Oakley and two other women, Sue Williams and Liesel Strauss, began work on the coffee table book about the cemetery last year.About 10% of those buried here are expatriates, businessmen from the colonial era, missionaries or casualties of war.

Others are sailors, such as Augustine Podmore Williams, the Englishman thought to be the inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s novel “Lord Jim.”

“He was a big, hefty guy,” said Sue Williams, a Briton who is not related to the seafarer. “He died bankrupt. He was known as ‘Daddy.”’

Unlike most in the cemetery, his small headstone will not be lost when the cemetery is razed. His is one of a handful of markers deemed “historically significant” by Singapore’s National Heritage Board and it will be put in a memorial garden, along with an ornate iron gate from Bidadari.

Families can take sculptures and gravestones home but most have not. Unclaimed headstones are smashed and put into a pit.

Chinese people tend to be uncomfortable having tombstones in their homes, said Brigid Tracy Tan, whose great-grandfather was exhumed from Bidadari. Her family left the tombstone and marble cross behind.

Tan, a curator for the Singapore Art Museum, spent hours scrutinizing Bidadari’s sculptures, looking for “aesthetically significant” examples. But she found most--even beautiful ones--were mass-produced. One of the two pieces she rescued is an intricately carved marble headstone for 12 Roman Catholic nuns who died between 1907 and 1956.