Sitting atop a forested and hilly area off Upper Aljunied Road in Singapore is an iconic white Chinese style pagoda with a green tiled roof. The neighbourhood landmark is part of the Mount Vernon Complex, which houses the Mount Vernon Sanctuary (funeral parlour) and Columbarium.
While not many may consider Mount Vernon Complex to be a typical cultural site, it has significant historical and heritage value. The plot of land that the complex sits on used to be occupied by Mount Vernon Crematorium, the first public crematorium in Singapore.
The Mount Vernon Crematorium, which began operations in 1962, was constructed to encourage Singaporeans to choose cremation over burials. Up till the early 1960s, cremation was not popular with Singaporeans, who mostly preferred land burials that are in line with traditional Asian funeral practices.
In recent years, however, the National Environment Agency of Singapore has observed that more people are opting for cremation over burial. In 2011, 80% of those who died chose cremation. This makes up almost the entire population, excluding people whose religions specifically dictate burial, such as Muslims, Baha’i and Parsees.
The decision to promote cremation to free up land from burials was an early reflection of the Singapore government’s stance towards land allocation in a land scarce Singapore. To date, freeing up land in Singapore for development and redevelopment purposes remains to be a priority. After all, at a mere 719.9 square kilometers, Singapore is the smallest ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member state by size. In contrast, the population density in Singapore, as reported in 2017, is the highest of all the other Southeast Asian states, with 7,796 people per square kilometers.
Thus, in order to create more housing for residential purposes, cemeteries in Singapore were progressively slated for exhumation. Some examples include the Bukit Timah Cemetery, Bukit Brown Cemetery and the Bidadari Cemetery, where hundreds of thousands of graves were dug up to pave the way for roads, houses and shopping centres. The Bidadari Cemetery, located near Mount Vernon, was once Singapore’s largest grave site. It was fully exhumed by the end of 2006 for urban redevelopment. A total of 58,000 Christian graves, followed by 68,000 Muslim graves, were exhumed to make way for a projected 12,000 homes in new Bidadari housing estate in Singapore.
It is perhaps unsurprising that today, the Mount Vernon Complex will not be spared from demolition as well. Both the sanctuary and the columbarium will be making way for the new Bidadari housing estate. After numerous lease extensions, the complex will finally be demolished by the end of September this year, with all the niches to be relocated or removed. Evidently, in Singapore, it appears true that land is always a premium, with the needs of the living prioritised over that of those who have passed.
Although it is still early days for the Bidadari Estate, it has proven to be a highly sought-after neighbourhood. There has been high demand for the Build-To-Order flat launches in the area despite its history as a former burial site. The 7.1ha area that Mount Vernon Complex currently occupies will contribute to the development of the housing estate, as it transforms into a Bidadari Park as well as two residential projects by Singapore’s Housing Development Board. A new funeral parlour complex will also replace the Mount Vernon sanctuary and columbarium in 2024, even though it will only be one-seventh as big as the existing complex, and will no longer hold niches.
An impending absence of niches at the Mount Vernon area implies the loss of a final resting place for those who have passed. Moreover, it also suggests that the customs of visiting and worshipping at an ancestor’s niche will soon disappear from the area forever. While many of those departed had a variety of religions including Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Catholicism, majority of the niches at Mount Vernon Complex belong to Singaporeans of Chinese ethnicity who practice Buddhist and Taoist rituals once integral to the Chinese culture.
Even though few visitors frequent the columbarium for most parts of the year, many Singaporeans head down to Mount Vernon together with their families during special occasions. These occasions include the death anniversaries and birthdays of the departed, as well as the Lunar New Year and the Qing Ming Festival (also known as the Tomb-sweeping Day), to pay respects to their departed loved ones.
When the demolition finally happens at Mount Vernon Complex, it is a definite loss to the vibrancy of Singapore’s architectural landscape and cultural diversity. Even though the future Bidadari housing estate may grow to become a homely neighbourhood with its own community and stories to tell, we will have to acknowledge that this development comes at a cost. Both tangible and intangible things will be sacrificed. The iconic pagoda on Mount Vernon, the green tiled columbarium blocks, the incense burners, trees, bushes and lush greenery are examples of the physical spaces and objects that will disappear; and along with it, the experience, traditions and customs in remembering departed loved ones at the Mount Vernon Complex will slowly slip away from people’s minds.
By Prisca Lim, ASEAN Correspondent from Singapore