Opening the Mausoleum of Death: First encounters with Bukit Brown

As far back as I can remember, death has been a taboo subject for my family. We rarely speak about death and anything related to the topic. I have never been allowed to follow my family to the cemeteries for the annual tomb cleaning festival, or Qingming. Whenever a funeral was held at the void deck, I was always instructed to make a detour round the next block; I was never, ever, allowed to attend a funeral.

“It must be bad luck,” my grandmother concluded eighteen years ago, when I came home with an unexplainable sudden fever after my mother and I accidentally walked through a funeral service. Fifteen years later, I made a futile attempt to seek permission to attend a close friend’s father’s funeral service. I can barely recall how long the cold war that followed lasted.

I suppose my grandparents were trying their best to protect me, and my mother simply found it too challenging to explain the realities of death. What I could recall though, was that after a while, I stopped asking for permission.

For most of my life, my closest interactions with death and cemeteries were with the ghastly recounts of Incredible Tales screened on Channel 5 on weekend nights. Influenced by images of the long hair and bloodshot eyes of flying ladies in forested landscapes, my mind had painted a frightening image of cemeteries. Admittedly, I was troubled prior to the site visit to Bukit Brown. I did not know if I should ‘ask for permission’; whether the cemetery would be as ‘deadly’ as the one in my mind; or what to even expect at all.

I tried to prepare my mind for an academic exploration, and comforted myself when I saw the size of the tour group as we entered through the rusty, hallowed gates of Bukit Brown. Equipped with a camera, notebook and pen, I was determined to busy myself with accumulating records of my observations and experiences.

The tour began from the tombs slightly off the main road and slowly progressed deeper into the lush greenery of Bukit Brown. While I struggled to avoid the tombs as we trudged along, I was surprised by the ease at which the tour guides walked directly over the portion where the bodies were buried. I soon discovered it was inevitable that one would step over that portion, because of the poor arrangements of the tombs. Even so, I reserved my qualms about ‘trespassing’ on these areas.

Later, as my friend and I comically asked for permission from the tombs to take photos, the tour guides surprised me again by standing at the area meant for rituals, and even sitting in between the tombstones to address the tour group. My rigidness and formality was a stark contrast to the tour guides’ composure and casualness. Perhaps the amount of time and dedication these tour guides committed to Bukit Brown has helped them to adapt and feel at home, but their flexibility towards certain taboos prevalent amongst our traditional culture was really an indication of divergence away from the avid death-denying culture.

The concept of ‘tomb cleaners’ was intriguing for me. These tomb cleaners are paid an annual maintenance fee, and would then help to maintain the tombs all year round. I found it ironic that some of these families would request for the tombs to be cleaned nearing the tomb-cleaning festivals so that when they visited the tombs then, the tombs would be presentable. Would having such an arrangement relegating these traditional duties to another party for convenience’s sake dull the intimacy between the families and the deceased? The increasing compromise between reconnecting with and grieving for the dead creates a worryingly static relationship between the two parties, and intensifies the tension between an obligation to the past and inconveniences in the present.

We were also introduced to a series of tombstones across race, culture and religion. Each was elaborately thought out and designed according to their respective traditions, through choices that reflected autonomy and ‘individualism’. These old tombs really do retain unique and personalized identities that apparently even align with the identities of their charges when still alive.


Detailed carvings on a tombstone

In a later conversation, Dr Connor observed that the ongoing plan to exhume the graves for the extension of a highway was like the obliteration of this “individualism” for the greater good. This idea of “society before self” sets its face against “rampant individualism” and has often been credited as a “major factor in Singapore’s success”. Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew, as he was then, explained in his speech  at the opening of the Singapore Academy of Law in 1990 that “[w]e… put communitarian interests over those of the individual, when sea-front land is acquired for reclamation by cancelling the right of individual sea-front owners to compensation for sea frontage”.

Nevertheless, the interaction between the deceased and the living is far more intricate. Perhaps certain values, such as filial piety and reverence of our roots and heritage, should be accorded more weight in our community because it is these inherent qualities that make us human.

Nearing the end of the tour, I found myself increasingly comfortable being at Bukit Brown and was eager to hear the stories behind each tomb. I was moved by how far individuals went to recover the tombs of their ancestors; what significance refurnishing the tombs and ensuring that their ancestors were properly laid to rest meant to them; how some of these deceased passed on from selflessly protected their loved ones during war time; and the legacies they fought extremely hard for their entire life. What would otherwise be known as a place of fear and solitude actually encompasses many heartwarming accounts of human life, and provokes one to really consider the imminence and ubiquitous of death in a more intimate and less theoretical framework. There was an indescribable serenity that brought peace and calm and I thoroughly enjoyed myself during the site visit to Bukit Brown.


One of the tombs at Bukit Brown

When I returned home that night, I had to sprinkle water with pomelo leaves before I could enter the house. I took a leap of faith and approached my grandmother and mother to share with them about my experience at Bukit Brown. Surprisingly, they seemed entertained; my grandmother even told me her own stories of tomb finding at another cemetery (though she did gasp in horror when I told her I took photos during the site visit).

An hour later, my mother asked if I could arrange a guided tour for her to visit Bukit Brown someday. I guess I made progress after all.