Every year without fail, Gaw Kay Heng and his wife wake up at the crack of dawn to drive to Bright Hill Columbarium, where the ashes of his departed parents and brother are placed.
By the time he arrives, parked cars already line the narrow driveway to the columbarium entrance at Sin Ming Avenue. The 48-year-old warehouse supervisor then parks a distance away and walks, lugging offerings like spirit money, paper gifts, joss sticks, fruits and an assortment of kueh.
Gaw and his wife are among many Chinese families who jostle for space at temples and columbariums during Qingming Jie to visit the niches or tombs of their dearly departed to pay their respects. The traditional Chinese festival spans for ten days, starting from the 5th of April every year.
During the festival, the usually serene corridors of the temples and columbariums are filled with teeming masses of hot, sweaty bodies. A cacophony of voices ring out through the smoke-filled halls and open spaces as joss sticks and paper offerings are burnt and families chatter among themselves. Young children can often be seen running around, many clueless to the significance of the occasion.
Despite the strong roots of the tradition, Gaw, says he has no plans to buy a niche for his own ashes when his time comes.
“I won’t buy a niche. We should follow our fate. I don’t know when I’ll die, but I will scatter my ashes into the sea,” he said in Mandarin.
You would not expect it judging from the crowds during this year’s Qingming, but the age-old tradition is now facing threats on many fronts as Singaporeans, both young and old, are turning away from the practice.
Redefining traditions: sea burials and going online
How we pay respects to our elders might be redefined within a generation as more people are questioning the importance of having a physical manifestation of their ancestors.
Sea burials and going online for Qingming have emerged as viable alternatives to the tradition. Like Gaw, many Singaporeans of his generation prefer to scatter their ashes into the sea, rather than going through the hassle of buying a niche.
Retiree Ang Lay Cheu is one of them. The 58-year-old visits his parents’ niche at Bright Hill every year during Qingming, but said he would choose a sea burial for himself.
“Personally I would prefer a sea burial, and our grandchildren will just face the sky and pay their respects, instead of having to travel to a specific place every year. It’s more convenient for them,” he said.
In other Asian countries like Malaysia, Taiwan, China and Hong Kong, many are abandoning traditional Qingming practices and using online memorial websites to make offerings to their ancestors.
These online memorials allow users to share photos, leave tributes and write condolence messages. They can also purchase virtual offerings such as candles and flowers.
The practice is still nascent in Singapore as only a minority has jumped onto the bandwagon, using sites like HeavenAddress and GoneTooSoon to make online tributes.
However, the alternative has its appeal to young, internet-savvy Singaporeans. Said 20-year-old Chew Si Pei: “Online memorials are definitely useful because young people nowadays are so connected to the Internet world. It certainly saves a lot of hassle.”
A tradition under threat
The rising prices of niches, issues with land leases and the belief that the younger generation might not continue the tradition are cited as top concerns for Gen X Singaporeans.
40-year-old Tan K.W said he would scatter his ashes, but might consider putting an ancestral tablet in a temple. “Niches are expensive. Most of our friends want their ashes to be scattered in the sea, but those who have money will go scatter it in the air,” he said with a laugh.
For 51-year-old locksmith Tan Chin Chiang, cost was the biggest factor. “Niches were cheaper in the past. When my father passed away in 1978, we bought his niche for about $500,” he said in Mandarin.
Soaring prices for increasingly scarce niche lots is another big concern for the Gen X. Due to land scarcity in Singapore, the price of niches has shot up over the years, with the most expensive single spaces in private columbariums going for a whooping $10,000.
Niches which can house the ashes of up to 24 family members in Nirvana Memorial Garden are priced at $200,000. Single niches can cost from $3,800 to $10,000, depending on its location.
Similarly, prices for Bright Hill columbarium start at $3,800 for a basic niche, and can hit up to $15,000 according to the desirability of its location.
Government-funded columbariums located in Mandai, Yishun and Choa Chu Kang offer a cheaper alternative, with a standard niche priced at $500 and family niche going for $900.
However, Singaporeans like 45-year-old Tan P.S questioned the viability of building more columbariums. “If you think about it, we don’t have a lot of places in Singapore to put our ashes. We’re an ageing population, and how are you going to keep building [columbariums]? Because you don’t get rid of the ashes of the older generations,” she said.
Currently, private columbariums and temples such as Nirvana Memorial Garden and Bright Hill face expiring land leases, which require renewal by the government. Nirvana’s land lease is due to expire in 2029.
Are youths misunderstood?
Although parents like Tan Chin Chiang bring their children along every year to pay respects to their ancestors, the belief that their children will not continue the Qingming tradition has deterred them from buying a niche.
“We bring the children here for them to understand the Qingming customs and to pay respects to our ancestors, but if I die I want my ashes to be scattered in the sea, because the young ones might forget [to visit my niche] in the future,” he said.
29-year-old Kim Teo, who visits her grandparents’ niches at Bright Hill every year, echoed Tan’s view.
“We’re now more and more westernised, so the tradition might die down. Youngsters don’t really care, they come only because their elders ask them to,” she said.
The senior operations executive added that the younger generation might not continue the Qingming tradition after their elders pass away.
However, youngsters like 16-year-old Joshua Wong, who visits the niche of his paternal grandfather every year, begs to differ. Said the student: “This is more of a family tradition. We have to respect the ancestors and inculcate filial piety. I will continue the practice next time.”
It remains to be seen if the old tradition of trudging down to columbariums during Qingming will survive. New, innovative ways of celebrating our ancestors might emerge.
But until then, people like Gaw who want a sea burial may not have it so easy.
Going by the book, they still have to apply for a permit with the Maritime and Port Authority to scatter their ashes in a designed site in Singapore.