Singapore's funeral industry and the New Burial System

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Mr Chew Geok Leong. Died 1939. Practiced TCM in Singapore at Geylang Serai Shophouse. He had prepared his coffin, tombs and statues while he was still alive.

They do everything. From funeral pre-planning to will writing and grief counselling, from supplies to professional embalming and make-up, from food and floral arrangements to post-funeral matters such as insurance and property. They even take care of sea burials and international repatriations. There are over 60 or so funeral directors in Singapore running an industry, which conservative estimates say run in excess of $100 million. And as Singapore ages fast, analysts believe that the industry is set to grow even further.

The bigger players, which are all members of the Association of Funeral Directors (Singapore), include Ang Chin Moh (ACM) Casket, Ang Yew Seng Funeral Parlour, Singapore Casket, Casket Fairprice, Direct Singapore Funeral Services, and Trinity Casket. These have sought to revamp the industry image often associated with social stigma; introducing up-market facilities, services and membership benefits; and even open training academies to train professionals for the funeral industry. While almost all funeral operators provide packages for Buddhist and Christian funerals, some like Casket Fairprice also provide three-days funeral arrangements for Freethinkers, probably a sign of the changing times.

Some like ACM Casket have ventured into the non-profit business as well and formed the ACM Foundation, which recently organised a Design for Death competition unveiling future trends and ideas to uplift the funeral industry. Themes at the competition included biodegradable caskets, home memorials, and a cluster of honeycomb-shaped urn vaults with light-emitting diodes.

The funeral industry also has smaller but more traditional players. Notable ones are Lee Teoh Heng Undertaker, Goh Soon Moh Undertaker, and Hao Zi Funerals. They refrain from over-the-top marketing campaigns; relying instead on word of mouth publicity and traditional good will for business.

But in recent times, the funeral industry has faced manpower shortage and complaints of lack of professionalism due to no mandatory licensing scheme. Anyone with a phone can operate a funeral services by outsourcing the jobs and retaining a commission. This has led to a surge in consumer complaints in recent years. Lim Biow Chuan, president of the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) – a non-profit organisation working for consumer protection, recently agreed with the demand for accreditation of funeral firms. While writing in The Strait Times forum, Lim added that such regularisation of the industry will “raise standards and weed out fly-by-night operators or providers of low quality services”. He also advised “consumers to look into engaging CaseTrusted companies for funeral services”.

So what are your options if and when you die in Singapore?

The National Environment Agency (NEA) is the country’s nodal agency for all matters relating to the funeral industry. After death, the body may either be buried in the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery complex – the only cemetery in Singapore still open for burials, or be cremated. The NEA introduced a New Burial System (NBS) in 2007 to replace the traditional earth burial plots with a concrete crypt sans a base and limit the burial period to 15 years. After the allotted 15 years, graves will be exhumed and the remains may either be cremated, put into a columbarium or re-buried.

There are three crematoria in Singapore, of which the Mandai Crematorium and Columbarium Complex is managed by the government, while the other two at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastary and Tse Toh Aum Temple are private-managed. After cremation, the ashes of the deceased may either be stored in three government-managed columbaria – at Mandai, Yishun and Choa Chu Kang, or in more than 50 private columbaria located across the Island. The family may also scatter a small amount of ashes at the designated site located about 1.5 nautical miles south of Pulau Semakau.

For those who really want to splurge even after death, can rest their ashes in the luxurious “6-star-grade” modern columbarium with full air-conditioning, Nirvana Memorial. Situated at Old Choa Chu Kang, Nirvana “provides free exhumation service for remains relocation and has niche available from S$4,800 onwards”, according to its widely circulated advertisements. This after the news broke that about 4,153 graves in the Bukit Brown Cemetery will be exhumed to build a new dual four-lane road passing through it. The Memorial plans to sell about 20,000 niches in about 10 years time targeting mainly Buddhists, Taoists and Confucianists.

Mr Chew Geok Leong. Died 1939. Practiced TCM in Singapore at Geylang Serai Shophouse. He had prepared his coffin, tombs and statues while he was still alive.
Mr Chew Geok Leong. Died 1939. Practiced TCM in Singapore at Geylang Serai Shophouse. He had prepared his coffin, tombs and statues while he was still alive.

Graves at the Bukit Brown Cemetery

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