Coping with grief: Alternative burial methods can help the living deal with loss

Coping with grief: Alternative burial methods can help the living deal with loss

People are choosing to turn their loved ones’ ashes into keepsake gemstones, encase them in biodegradable urns and more.

Alternative burial methods ashes cremation
(Illustration: Tony Law)

It is never easy telling someone that you were once happily married but now, you live alone. You choke back tears when you say you have two children but only one is living. Or that Mother’s Day has lost its meaning because Mum is no longer around.

It may seem impossible - at the moment of losing a loved one - to imagine carrying on with life without him or her. But there can be an end to the grieving journey, and it is one that includes the burial or cremation of the deceased.

“Our human relationships have at least three major aspects: Physical, emotional, and spiritual. When someone dies, the physical bond is broken,” said the late Russell Friedman, who was executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute in the US, which provides support for grief issues.

However, the emotional and spiritual bonds “continue”. And it is this continuity that makes burials as well as the cremation and retention of ashes coveted as they “provide us with a find-able location and… nearness of the body or ashes to remind us of that person who died”, he noted on the Grief Recovery Institute website. 

“Even when we have completed our own grief recovery actions, we may use the grave or urn to help us share memories of that person with future generations who did not know them as we did.”


Furthermore, grief is an individual journey, and there is no “correct” way of coping with the loss, said Candice Tan, senior medical social worker from Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s (a member of the National Healthcare Group) Department of Care & Counselling. For instance, it is no longer surprising – and even acceptable - for people to memorialise their loved ones on social media. “Bereaved individuals may turn to online mediums to journal their experiences and reflections,” she said.

Nonetheless, the impact of funerals and wakes on the living is irreplaceable. “The rituals assure the family that the deceased has been cared for till his very last physical departure, and has been ascribed dignity and respect. It also allows for the bereaved to say goodbye, which creates a sense of finality,” said Ms Tan.

In Singapore, cremation is more common than burials due to the land constraint and lack of burial grounds. If their faith permits, many families also find it practical to opt for cremation as the burial period in Singapore is limited to 15 years, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA) website.

Furthermore, there are now alternatives to handle the ashes of a loved one, other than placing the urn in a columbarium. Here’s a look at them.


Memorial gemstones alternative burial methods ashes cremation
(Photos: Singapore Casket)

Sometimes, to hold on to the memories, you need something physical as a remembrance. Family members “may feel more reassured with something to hold on to, and may then not be so afraid of forgetting the deceased,” said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist with Gleneagles Hospital.

For those who find it macabre to keep an urn at home, these Gem Stones made from human ashes let you use a portion of the cremated remains, leaving the rest at the columbarium. “A 1.5-carat Gem Stone, regardless of its shape, takes about 15g of ashes to create,” said Calvin Tang, assistant general manager of Singapore Casket. “The smallest can be as small as a green bean. The biggest, at 27 carats, is about the size of a 50-cent coin.” The Gem Stone can be fashioned into a pendant or earrings, and set in 18K white gold - popular choices here.

The stone’s colour, though, is determined by the deceased’s bone marrow. “Sometimes, the Gem Stone created is light green; sometimes, it looks dark green or even dark grey,” said Mr Tang. To cater to the growing demand for blue gemstones, Singapore Casket has also introduced the Ocean Sapphire series, which uses a dye to colour the stones blue.

If you so choose, the same technology can also be used to convert all of the cremated remains – usually about 1.5kg to 2kg of ashes - into unpolished Gem Stones and displayed in a jar, said Mr Tang.


Keepsake necklace box alternative burial methods ashes cremation
Keepsakes that let families retain a portion of the ashes. (Photos: The Life Celebrant)

The same remembrance effect can be had with other forms of keepsakes. And it doesn’t have to be ashes either. “We have had parents, who lost their child, choose memorial necklaces. We place the child's hair into a necklace capsule instead because there may not be a lot of ashes when it comes to young children,” said Angjolie Mei, managing director of The Life Celebrant (TLC). Families have also opted for keepsake boxes (about 8cm by 8cm) that can hold a portion of the ashes and displayed at home. 

“From what they have shared with me, this is their way of maintaining a continued connection and bond with their loved one,” said Ms Tan. “It allows them some form of assurance that their loved one is still living on with them in another form, and that death ends a life, but never a relationship.”


Biodegradable urns alternative burial methods ashes cremation
Indoor potted plants such as this incorporate a biodegradable urn in the pot. (Photo: The Life Celebrant)

Then, there are families who take the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” further by letting the cremated remains regenerate life. “We had a family who chose to encase their mother’s cremated remains in one of our biodegradable earth urns, so that they could bury her remains in their private garden,” said Ms Mei.

Such back-to-nature practices can have their benefits, said Dr Lim. “A potted plant can represent the continuity of life for the deceased in that some parts of him or her continue to live and grow through the plant,” said Dr Lim.

The Bios Urn, as the biodegradable container is called, can also be placed into a pot for an indoor plant of the family’s choice. These plants include the fiddle-leaf fig tree, Buddhist yew and even bonsai like the desert rose.

“We fill the pot with soil before placing the container into the pot. More soil is used to fill up the pot before the plant is put in,” said Ms Mei. “We nurture the plant for two to three weeks before delivering it to the family, or they collect it themselves.”


If the idea of returning to nature had appealed to the deceased before his death, there is now a way of honouring his wish: Scattering the ashes in a garden. According to NEA, this inland ash scattering service will be introduced at the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery Complex in 2020, and Mandai Crematorium and Columbarium Complex in 2021.

No further details have been shared at the moment but NEA said that the agency has consulted various religious groups and funereal service providers on “design criteria, user experience, operational procedures, booking arrangements, and cultural and religious needs”.


Sea burials biodegradable urns alternative burial methods ashes cremation
An example of a water-biodegradable urn made with recycled and craft paper, and used for sea burials. It is created to float briefly before sinking into the sea and releasing the ashes. (Photo: The Life Celebrant)

Releasing the ashes into the sea is not an option only recently adopted by Singaporeans; it is part of the Hindu practice, said Mr Tang. It is only about 20 years ago that sea burials starting being accepted by the other religions, and now, Singapore Casket arranges for 10 to 15 such burials each year, he said.

The acceptance of sea burials could be owing to family members not being able to take care of the ashes in the long term if they were placed in a niche. “Psychologically, it can signify freedom for the deceased and a return to nature,” said Dr Lim.

Currently, the designated site for sea burials is about 2.8km south of Pulau Semakau and requires chartering a boat to reach the site. But that will change when the new burial facility at Tanah Merah will allow for families to scatter the ashes of their loved ones at sea without boarding a boat.

The new facility will have four pavilions, each with a capacity to accommodate seven people and a shelter for 28 people, among other features. NEA has commissioned an Environmental Impact Study to be completed by 2019 to better assess the possible environmental impact of the facility. 

Source: CNA/bk