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Issue 6
DESIGNING A CEMETERY IN LAND-SCARCE SINGAPORE
An architect reflects on how designing a cemetery has helped him in his bereavement after his own father’s passing
SJ Architecture
February 2023
Choa Chu Kang Cemetery site, the only burial ground in Singapore
Abstract: The writer was an intern when he helped design space in a crematorium in Singapore, a project that he subsequently used during his own father’s cremation. This began an enduring interest in the design of after-death facilities, culminating in his work on the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery, the only cemetery in land-scarce Singapore, a country with a greying population. He discusses how the authorities use a prefabricated crypt building system with removable covers to facilitate the “reuse” of crypts, offering an insightful look at the sensitive manner in which death and burial are handed in a multi-religious society.

Reflections beyond the drafting board

When I started my architectural internship in 2003, one of my first tasks was to help with the drafting for the furniture, fittings and spaces within a crematorium development in Mandai, in the northern part of Singapore.
I remembered my mentor speaking about the design of the spaces and the furniture from the point of view of the users – the next-of-kin, how the seats would have tall backrests to serve as privacy screens, for the next-of-kin to have a moment of private silence after coming out of the viewing gallery.
As fate would have it, when my father passed away two years later, the cremation was held in the same crematorium that I had helped in the drafting.
That was the first of many experiences I had at the crematorium, as I encountered more deaths among my extended family and friends. The same emotions would still come rushing every time in the viewing gallery, watching the casket slowly move through the courtyard into the furnace. The body, no, the person that I had known, would be no more, reduced to ashes. That was the final moment, when grieving transitions into the process of acceptance.

Death as a natural part of life

I used to be afraid of passing through cemeteries or walking past wakes being held on the ground floor of Singapore’s public housing blocks.
My experiences of the death of loved ones slowly changed my thinking, and I started to be interested in funerals, and the various post-mortem rituals of different communities. I realised there are differences between Taoist rituals for different Chinese dialect groups. I started trying to understand how Malay-Muslim rites for the deceased were conducted, and became intrigued by the sounding of the horn and beating of drums in Hindu funerals. I would often wonder if the person had lived to a ripe old age and how the family members were coping, and even where his or her remains would be interred, if he or she had chosen to be buried.
Death is often a sensitive subject, but my personal experiences – especially with losses in my family and circle of close friends – have made me more open to discussions of death and dying.

I started to be interested in funerals, and the various post-mortem rituals of different communities. I realised there are differences between Taoist rituals for different Chinese dialect groups. I started trying to understand how Malay-Muslim rites for the deceased were conducted

As Sallie Tisdale, a nurse who made a name for herself by writing about caregiving, writes: “To accept death is to accept that this body belongs to the world. This body is subject to all the forces in the world. This body can be broken. This body will run down.” We come to terms with our own mortality through accepting the demise of people close to us, as we go through the process of cremation or burial of our loved ones. The finality of the ritual also reminds us of the ephemeral nature of life.

Bereavement in Singapore

Living in a densely populated and greying society like Singapore, one inevitably confronts the reality of death frequently, from funerals and last rites held at housing blocks to the hearses and processions we see on roads. These rituals help to bring a sense of closure, to help the living deal with the demise of their loved ones.
As a multi-cultural society, providing for different racial and religious groups and their requirements for bereavement arrangements is important. Paradoxically, wakes and processions are often social affairs at the same time, as families gather to mourn, undergo the rituals of bereavement, which can be rather complex sometimes. It is at the moment of cremation or burial that we have a chance to say our final goodbye.
One of the first things I learnt is the amount of care and thinking that goes behind the planning and provision of after-death facilities in Singapore.
In a land-scarce, multi-religious and multi-racial society like Singapore, there is a lot of sensitivity for the religious burial needs within tight land constraints. Although cremation is popular, the country accepts that burial remains a preference for some, and even mandatory for some religious groups.
An example is the New Burial Policy, introduced in 1998 to address the issue of land scarcity. The New Burial Policy limits burial to 15 years. After this period, graves will be exhumed and the remains cremated or re-interred, depending on one’s religious requirements.

In a land-scarce, multi-religious and multi-racial society like Singapore, there is a lot of sensitivity for the religious burial needs within tight land constraints. Although cremation is popular, the country accepts that burial remains a preference for some, and even mandatory for some religious groups.

Working on Choa Chu Kang Cemetery

Choa Chu Kang Cemetery, located in the north-western part of Singapore, is the only burial ground in Singapore. All other cemeteries, including Bukit Brown Cemetery, Jalan Kubor Cemetery, Japanese Cemetery Park and Kubur Kassim Cemetery, were closed over the last century.
Many of the former cemeteries were also exhumed and redeveloped over time, such as Pek San Teng which is now Bishan North, a housing estate. Another cemetery, Bidadari Cemetery, is now being developed by the Singapore housing authority into a residential neigbourhood, while Gali Batu Cemetery was redeveloped into a depot for the Downtown MRT Line.
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Location of cemeteries and public after-death facilities in Singapore(Graphic: SJ Architecture)

Memorial spaces for those we love

Surbana Jurong Consultants Pte Ltd, was given the opportunity to plan, design and manage the implementation of burial facilities in Choa Chu Kang Cemetery under a multi-disciplinary consultancy project with National Environment Agency (NEA) in 2016. It was an eye-opening experience for the team, as we often visited Choa Chu Kang Cemetery for studies, site meetings and inspections.
Walking through the burial grounds and maintaining a general respect to the graves became a weekly affair for us. During my site studies for the preparation of master plans for the cemetery, I would often stroll alone across the vast cemetery area in the morning, soaking in the nature and serenity.
As part of the New Burial Policy, the Crypt Burial System (CBS) was introduced by the authorities from 2007. This was a very important improvement for the way individual graves were demarcated.
Previously, the boundaries for individual graves were marked on the ground for excavation by burial workers before burial. This was time-consuming, labour-intensive, and unsustainable for a fast ageing population. Another disadvantage was that there had to be sufficient buffer space between graves to allow for working space during excavation.
The CBS solved these problems, simply by having burial crypts fashioned out of prefabricated reinforced concrete structures without a base, with features that are designed to meet the burial requirements for various religious groups.
The crypts are only filled with earth after the burial rites are completed, cutting down the time and labour required to excavate the graves manually. The CBS also has removable crypt covers, which allow the graves to be easily exhumed after 15 years, so that the crypts can be re-used.
CCK Crypt1
A view of the crypt Burial System used in Choa Chu Kang Cemetery

In the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery, there are areas with burial crypts for Muslims, Taoists, Christians and Hindus. The Christian Cemetery is further demarcated into Roman
Catholic and Protestant Divisions, and also features Lawn Cemeteries.

The vast majority of the crypts built using the crypt burial system are within the Muslim Cemetery. Crypts were built with the longer side facing Mecca, such that the body would be laid slightly on the side, and with the face turned towards Mecca. Some crypts were also built for reinterred remains which were exhumed from the fresh burial crypts after 15 years. These crypts would be used to re-inter the remains of between eight and sixteen individuals that had been exhumed and wrapped. Some of these crypts were also used for the burial of the surgical remains of Muslim individuals, which may include limbs and organs, as well as foetuses of the stillborn. (More information on the exhumation and reinterment process may be found in Wareesan Management’s website.)
While preparing the master plan, we learnt about some unique requirements for other religious groups, and we applied these to our plans for the Jewish Cemetery, Baháʼí Cemetery and Parsi Cemetery within Choa Chu Kang Cemetery.
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A view of the Lawn Cemetery at Choa Chu Kang cemetery

The CBS solved these problems, simply by having burial crypts fashioned out of prefabricated reinforced concrete structures without a base, with features that are designed to meet the burial requirements for various religious groups.

We have also come across interesting ways some cities resolve the issue of lack of burial space. These includes vertical cemeteries, where large niches for full burial are stacked in high-rise buildings. Some examples include the Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica in Santos, Brazil, and Yarkon Cemetery near Tel Aviv, Israel.
In Singapore, good urban planning has ensured that sufficient land is secured for cemeteries. The Choa Chu Kang Cemetery is located within the Western Water Catchment. Its hilly terrain makes it suited for other types of land use. Due to the undulating terrain, we often need to terrace sections of crypts to mitigate the level difference, which bears some resemblance to “The Grid Meets the Hills” in some cities, where we had to use a series of ramps and staircases to maintain accessibility.
This brings unexpected results sometimes, such as a “green tunnel” gateway promenade in the Christian Cemetery, or a pavilion with the best view in the Chinese Cemetery.
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Green Tunnel Promenade

Other than the crypts, and roads and footpaths, we have also designed the pavilions within the cemetery, which was planned to allow each pavilion to be within one-minute walk from anywhere within the cemetery grounds, to provide shelter for visitors from weather conditions.

These pavilions are kept open to capitalise on the views to the surrounding greenery, offering a sense of calm and a reminder of the cyclical nature of life for the visitors.
Another feature that NEA provided within the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery is the new Garden of Peace. The serene garden is designed as an open garden designed for the scattering of cremated ashes in a respectful and dignified manner. It was built in response to a growing interest by Singaporeans to have the cremated remains of their loved ones returned to nature.

Space for the living to remember

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One of the pavilions in Choa Chu Kang Cemetery
We wanted to focus on the living as much as the departed, and designed these spaces for the next-of-kin who are grieving, or returning to the cemetery to visit the graves during significant anniversaries of their loved ones or during festivals such as Qing Ming, All Souls Day and Hari Raya Haji.
Seats are clustered around the columns to allow the next-of-kin to engage in private conversations, and the pavilions are surrounded with flowering shrubs and small trees to provide shade and added weather protection. The pavilions also act as intimate spaces that contrasts with the openness of the cemetery grounds, as a space for reflection and comfort.
Hero Image CCK Story
Greenery in the Cemetery
In many of the songs and rites conducted during funerals rites, regardless of culture and traditions, there is often a theme on the cyclical nature of time and the seasons, and by extension the cycle of life.
The physical manifestation of this theme can be observed in the cemetery, from the seasonal birds chirping and flying between the trees, to the colourful whirligigs spinning away on the graves in the wind. We try to capitalise on these elements of nature by introducing trees with low canopies closer to the ground, which rustle in the wind and provide shade for visitors.
Throughout the entire period of the construction, most of the site supervision staff and contractor management team told us that they liked working in the environment in Choa Chu Kang Cemetery. Indeed, we found the cemetery very calm, peaceful, and therapeutic to the mind and soul. Perhaps it is the constant reminder of one’s own mortality, or the endless greenery, the landscaping with the variety of young and mature trees, with the periodic blooming of the trumpet trees.
It is perhaps the environment that draws me to take walks within Choa Chu Kang Cemetery often, be it on days for regular site walks and meetings, or as part of my research on the area to prepare for concept studies and reports.
I feel privileged to have been able to plan the cemetery as I take these walks, knowing that death is a natural part of life, and reflecting on those who have departed, and the part of our lives that we have shared.
Trumpet Trees 1
Trumpet Trees Blooming in the Cemetery
Project
Redevelopment of Choa Chu Kang Cemetery
Location
Jalan Bahar, Lim Chu Kang Road, Old Choa Chu Kang Road – Western Catchment Area, Singapore
Size
250 ha (overall land area)
Status
250 ha (overall land area)
Ongoing (Last development phase)
Client
National Environment Agency
Services
Full Suite Multi-Disciplinary Consultancy (Arch, C&S, M&E, QS)
Firm / BU
SJ Architecture, Team 7
Collaboration
No external consultants
Project Lead
Liew You San (Project Director)
Du Peng (Project Lead / SO Rep – First 2 development phases)
Koh Wei Kiang (Planning and Project Lead – All phases and Masterplan / SO Rep – Last 2 development phases)
Project Team
Bonifacio JR Dorado Honrado, Huszairy bin Mohd Zamry, Gementiza Jefferson Paul Canonigo, Hoo Lee Choo, Lu Pengzhou (Landscape Architect), Derrick Zong, Liu Yunpeng, Justin Pang (C&S Engineer), Lim Teck Chye (Electrical Engineer), Ellen Lai, Richard Chung (QS)
Keywords
Cemetery, Burial, After Death, Crypts, Funerary Cultures and Practices, Precast Construction.
The SEEDS Journal, started by the architectural teams across the Surbana Jurong Group in Feb 2021, is a platform for sharing their perspectives on all things architectural. SEEDS epitomises the desire of the Surbana Jurong Group to Enrich, Engage, Discover and Share ideas among the Group’s architects in 40 countries, covering North Asia, ASEAN, Middle East, Australia and New Zealand, the Pacific region, the United States and Canada.
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