How a burial ground can open one’s eyes to culture, history, and tradition. In Singapore, each ethnic group comes with its traditional customs and rituals.
Legend has it that placing chilli and onion under a tree or in pots of plant in four corners of a certain place could ward off rain –– a ritual that has its origins in Malay culture. Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong joked about it in an interview during the F1 Grand Prix in 2008.
With ethnic Chinese making up 74 per cent of Singapore’s population, Chinese superstitions pervade the country. Here’s a little backstory about the country’s $1 coin: The late Minister Lee Kuan Yew was a firm believer of Fengshui and consulted Venerable Hong, a respected Fengshui master, about the construction of the MRT in the mid-1980s. Venerable Hong warned that the construction, which cuts through downtown Singapore, will negatively affect the country and her people. He proposed that every household display a bagua, eight trigrams that represent the fundamental principles of reality in Taoist cosmology. Considering the fact that doing so would upset racial and religious sensitivities, it obviously wasn’t going to happen. The solution? Design the $1 coin in the shape of a bagua so that everyone would have no choice but to carry it around.
For a tiny island of 719.1 km², there sure are an alarmingly high number of allegedly haunted places. In Singapore, cemeteries are generally regarded as places full of bad juju. One can assume that every cemetery in the country is haunted. People only visit cemeteries when they want to pay respects to their deceased relatives on death anniversaries or during religious festivals such as the Hungry Ghost Month, or sweep the tombs during 清明节 (Qingming Festival). They perform rituals such as placing offerings of food on tombstones, burning “hell notes”, paper replicas of cars, mobile phones and other luxury items.
OVER MY DEAD BODY
I wouldn’t be caught dead walking through cemeteries in Singapore. Not in the day, and especially not at night. But in Europe, a casual daytime walk through a cemetery is as normal as a walk in the park. There aren’t any creepy vibes at all. In fact, it’s quite a tranquil experience.
I’ve walked through Pére-Lachaise in Paris on a gloomy rainy evening, in search of Oscar Wilde’s lipstick-covered tomb. Others flock to American rock legend Jim Morrison’s grave – the most visited one in the same cemetery. Readers of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir go to Montparnasse cemetery just to pay tribute.
On a recent trip to Barcelona, my Couchsurfing host José took me to Cementiri de Montjuic, the main cemetery of the city. Just a 15-minute walk from Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the 57-acre cemetery sits on one of the rocky slopes of Montjuic hill. It contains more than 1 million burials and cremation ashes in 150,000 plots, niches and mausolea.
While superstitions and magical thinking have existed in Europe for centuries, most modern Europeans think nothing of them. Similarly, religion is unimportant in their day-to-day lives. The Catholic churches in Barcelona and other European cities I’ve been to remain largely empty, and are mostly there for historical and nostalgic purposes. Walk into a church on Sunday mass and you’ll only see the elderly in attendance. As a non-believer, that doesn’t bother me, but some religious young tourists would find that sad. The irony is that you’ll find more religious folks in Singapore than in Europe.
José wanted to show me the decorations on the tombstones and burial niches of gypsies who – if you want to be politically correct – are also known as Romani/Roma. He – a native Spaniard – wanted to show me part of Romani culture, and how this often discriminated minority ethnic group commemorates their deceased loved ones. While the Romani forms most of the underprivileged population in Europe, José says that they spend a lot of money decorating the burial plots of their relatives when they can afford to do so.
In this cemetery, the tombstones of the gypsies are very easy to spot as they are usually adorned with brightly coloured plastic flowers. Some burial plots are huge, and even have statues of the deceased standing by. José told me that most gypsies in Spain carry the last name Jiminez or Cortes.
We walked past a niche decorated with blue and white plastic flowers and I stopped to take a look. José commented that the man in the photo looked like a flamenco dancer. In my ignorance, I asked, “Are most flamenco dancers gypsies?” He responded with a “Yes!” He went on to tell me about Carmen Amaya, the greatest flamenco dancer of her generation. She was a gypsy. While flamenco originated in Andalusia in Southern Spain in the 17th century, the dance style has gradually been influenced by and associated with the Romani in Spain. That makes sense, considering that the Romani are known for being entertainers, with music and dance playing a huge part in their culture.
PUTTING THE ‘A’, ‘R’, ‘T’ IN ARCHITECTURE
As we continued on our walk, we reached a part of the cemetery where most of the mausolea are located. A few of them contained coffins of an entire family, stretching back generations. Some were at least 200 years old. Others were constructed like a mini chapel. One tombstone was accompanied by a classical Roman statue.
I got to see mausolea constructed in different architectural styles: Neo-gothic, neo-Egyptian, roman, and more. The neo-Egyptian one was particularly new to me; I was fascinated by the elaborate carvings on the door of the mausoleum.
Seeing these mausolea really drove home how small Singapore really is. Cemeteries in Singapore have been, and still continue to be exhumed to make way for roads, train stations and housing estates. Being a 54-year-old country, you’ll hardly see tombstones that are more than 200 years old, let alone mausolea in any cemetery. There is simply no space for them.
SIX FEET UNDER
Even though it wasn’t my first time walking through a cemetery, Montjuic Cemetery opened my eyes to the history, culture and architecture one can see on a burial ground. I began to wonder what I was missing out on in my own backyard.
Taking leisurely walks through cemeteries is unheard of in Singapore, but I found out about the guided walks on Bukit Brown cemetery. It’s a volunteer-run initiative which started recently in 2015 – in hopes of bringing awareness to the culture, heritage, and nature on site – after the historical cemetery was affected by a proposed road construction in 2013 as well as the construction of the Thomson-East Coast MRT line.
Perhaps I should cast my superstitious beliefs aside and go on one of the guided walks before it’s too late. It’s time for me to hear the stories of the dead on Bukit Brown cemetery before it inevitably gets consumed by the relentless urbanisation in Singapore.