Dealing with the dead in S’pore: a gravedigger’s story

Ghosts hover near him when he works, but that doesn’t bother him one bit.

They’re friends by now and he’s not afraid, shared professional gravedigger Alex Wong.

Affectionately known to his friends as “Tua Ya Pek”, a Taoist god of the spiritual underworld, Wong has been exhuming graves for the past 30 years. Often, his services are needed when the government decides to make way for development. One such project is the eight-lane highway that will cut through Bukit Brown early next year.

But the dead are not always ready and willing to move, said Wong in a recent two-hour interview with Yahoo! Singapore at a kopitiam in Toa Payoh.

“There’re times I hear them cry as I dig their graves, ‘Why are you digging my hole? I’ve stayed here for so long, why are you chasing me out?’” he recounted, in a smattering of broken English and Hokkien. “But this is the government’s land and they want it back. I’ve got no choice… forgive me, I’d say.”

Wong called it a give-and-take process.

“Before digging, I’d usually pray and ask the spirit to ‘hold my hand’,” he explained. “Then I’d try my best to do things the proper way and sometime later, I’d burn them some offerings… it’s like table manners.”

He added, “Some people (other gravediggers) don’t care, but for me, I must follow my law. We cannot play a fool with these spirits. If I don’t do my job well, my future will not look good. I may fall sick, my family members may not be well… things can happen.”

Ghostly encounters
The 54-year-old, who estimates he has dug up more than 4,000 graves, said he often hears the spirits when he’s working at the cemetery – some are mournful, choking muffled sobs while others are much louder and more vocal, protesting through deafening shrieks. Occasionally, he’d hear children laughing and playing among themselves.

The sounds are very different from those of human beings, Wong said. They’re sharp, very high-pitched and often echo through the site.

It can be quite a sight when he sees the spirits, which are all around the cemeteries, he added.

Without blinking an eye, Wong said matter-of-factly, “Sometimes they look just like human beings but, other times, scarier. Their faces can be quite ugly, if they died horribly. They walk like we do, but their legs never touch the ground. And when they do fly, you see lights – blue and green. It’s fascinating.”

Aware that sceptics may not believe in the existence of the supernatural, Wong shrugged. However, he did warn that humans must not “play” with the spirits.

 “We have flesh and blood while they don’t, they’re devoid of feelings,” he said. “You dare to disturb them?” he asked this reporter. “I don’t.”

Wong recalled how he was once "punished" after he pocketed a “nice jade bangle” in a moment of greed, which he later sold for S$3,000.
“The spirit came to look for me over the next few days. It’d knock on my bedroom door, call my name and once even whistled into my son’s ear, scaring him badly,” he said.

It was only after Wong got hold of the jewellery, which the buyer had given back after experiencing constant tugging at her forearm while she was wearing it, and “returned” it to the rightful owner, complete with prayers and offerings, did things go back to normal.

Wong said he’s not the only one who’s experienced such ghostly visits.

A fellow gravedigger once came across a skull with several gold teeth intact and tried to extract them using a small changkol (backhoe in Malay). He missed and hit the skull instead.

A month later, the gravedigger’s infant daughter suffered a bad fall which saw her skull cracked in an eerily similar manner.

“It’s never good to trifle with the dead,” Wong said. “If you meet a good ghost, you’re heng (lucky in Hokkien). But if your luck isn’t good and it ends up following you home, you’ll have a big problem.”

Dying tradition
Back in the olden days, Wong often had to exhume two or sometimes three graves in a day. It would take him up to an hour to exhume one, depending on how deep he had to dig.

For each grave, he would be paid at least S$150, but not anymore. The “market rate” today has suffered an almost-threefold dip, with many jobs paying out a mere S$50.

“I used to do it every day but the market is very quiet these days as more families opt for cremation, the cheaper and easier option,” shared Wong, who now takes on odd jobs such as house painting and repairs.

“And for the old-timers (experienced grave diggers like himself), we won’t do it for S$50. It’s a very tough job, very dirty and very smelly too. If the money’s so low, who will want to do it?”

Tough as it may be, exhumation is also a delicate procedure that takes years of experience to master, explained Wong, who doesn’t tolerate slipshod efforts.

Few of the skeletons he recovers are complete, and the bones and their coffins are mostly decayed, but he said he still does all he can to ensure every remaining bone is accounted for, no matter how small.

“You must also know to gauge the depth at which the bones are buried so you will not break them with the changkol,” he said.

“Sometimes, the coffin may have shifted after years of being deep in the soil, or the body could be buried at a different position from the tombstone. You need to know where to dig, and when to slow down.”

Every once in a while, Wong said he would still get surprise visits from his “companions”, requesting for him to return to the cemetery.

“Sometimes the spirits would come and find me and ask me to go back to work. They’d tell me, ‘I want you to do mine, you’re good!” Wong said with a laugh. “It’s funny, and very hard to explain too.”

Before the interview came to an end, Wong turned somber when he talked about the respect the dead are now accorded in Singapore.

“It’s sad that people nowadays have changed, especially the younger generation,” Wong continued. “Many people just don’t seem to bother anymore. They’re too lazy to visit the temples and pay their respects to their dead grandparents.”

“But the truth is, these old people who’ve died, they’re still thinking of their children, missing their family,” he said.

“They shouldn’t be forgotten.”