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I remember little about visiting my grandfather’s ashes many years ago – it was, I found out later, at Khong Meng San in Bright Hill – and only two images remain in my mind’s eye.
An endless row of urns stacked on shelves, and a pool full of tortoises.
It was 6am, I was a grouchy five-year-old, and all I could think about was why there were so many tortoises looking like they were trying to make a getaway. I had little time to think about Ah Kong.
Now, spending much of my academic career musing about death and post-death, thoughts of the dead poke me like errant friends on Facebook.
WHERE TO PUT THE DEAD?
What to do with the dead?
That’s a question that pops up in society’s consciousness every year or two, especially around periods where we remember our loved ones and visit their resting places – Qing Ming, All Souls Day, Shab-e-Barat, Pithru Paksha and more.
A recent video documentary on Channel NewsAsia, showing the dire circumstances for Hong Kong’s dead, some of whom were housed in shelves of plastic boxes in cramped apartments, generated the usual colloquial lamentations in Singapore.
Aiyoh! Die already! Singapore’s going this way, we’re going to end up in plastic boxes too! Eh, you think it’s a good time to buy shares in Toyogo?
Earlier this year I penned a commentary about spaces associated with death in Singapore, and how we need to de-programme ourselves from linking death, and the burial of the dead with physical and spiritual pollution.
The less we think of a space as unclean, the more likely we are to find a solution that acknowledges both the need for such spaces and the limitations of our island.
Similarly, there are and are going to be many more dead. Cultural and religious norms are in direct confrontation with geographical constraints and social taboos, particularly NIMBY-ism (or the attitude of “not in my backyard”).
There needs to be other methods of releasing the dead.
But is releasing the right word? Maybe that’s the problem.
In choosing between burial, ash storage and any other option – whether sea burial, memorial gardens, or blasting off into space – we are faced with two extremes – an either or situation.
In the former, there is a static place where at least a physical portion of you remains. Even if you are squeezed into a bag, and left in a drawer with strangers, at the very least you retain a physical presence in this world.
In the latter, you become ethereal, there is no particular spot, tomb, or marker that one can point to and say, “When I’m dead, I’ll be remembered here”.
Dispersal, recycling, scattering – these are all well-intentioned, eco-friendly methods that would make any millennial proud.
But these words carry with them a deep symbolic violence – a final destruction to one’s body, a kind of annihilation of one’s social identity.
My research often leads me to think about the ways individuals want to express their identities, and many sociologists have pointed to the myriad approaches we take – dress, behaviour, language, place-making, and more.
Of these, I have always found the use of material objects to reveal the most of one’s desires, fears and aspirations.
These objects are sometimes called aesthetic markers – items that perform our identity for those to see. Tombstones, urns, memorial plaques, obituaries, ancestral tablets and other death paraphernalia can potentially come under this umbrella.
New methods of dealing with the dead too often ignore the need for these markers. To remove all physical trace of an individual is not just to simply forget them, the act seems to also somehow marginalise their value when they were alive.
AESTHETIC MARKERS STILL NEEDED
The physical nature of a marker is thus deeply important – which is possibly why online memorial pages and zombie Facebook profiles can only go so far as replacements for a memorial plaque.
Even though we spend an increasing amount of time negotiating the world through a smartphone, there are still things we want to feel, touch and sense.
That tactility is also why we are often concerned about the aesthetics of death – consider the outrage recently when it was found out that some individuals’ columbarium plaques were made of quartz and not marble.
Think of the intricate designs and minimalist lines of graves of different religions and ethnicities. Whichever the taste or style, individuals demand beauty, even if they are not there to see it.
There are many of course that do not mind disappearing off the face of the earth. After all, we were non-existent before we were born, why should we continue to “exist” when we are gone?
But I think the need reflects our very human desire to be social, and to continue to be part of something bigger.
Many well-meaning design students try to engage with these problems. Oftentimes you will see at graduation shows a design for the dead – memorial halls or other spaces meant to provide that physical and aesthetic solution.
READ: Contemplating the future of dying, a commentary
Other more visible options, like turning yourself into a tree, is also gaining traction in some parts of the world.
What we need to do more urgently, is to think and research about how we can find more ways for the living to be satisfied with how they will exist when dead.
What is there that enough of us can point to and say, “When I’m dead, I’m fine with being remembered like this”?
The problem of available space will continue to remain, and unless we find ways to harness technology and policy in sensitive ways to appease that social need to belong and be present, we will always struggle with plastic boxes and wayward ashes.
Terence Heng is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool, UK, where he is also an associate at the Centre for Architecture and the Visual Arts. He studies the changing identities of Chinese Singaporeans through ritual, religion and place-making.