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The aim of this project is to explore different avenues in funeral processes that could be put into practice by the government so as to conserve space in this land-scarce society. To answer this question, I will be conducting research on the different methods that are available such as burial and cremation. I will then be weighing the different pros and cons of each method and the factors that are involved with these processes. I will also attempt to analyze the situation revolving around Bukit Brown, then provide my own opinion on the matter after conducting an interview on the topic and gaining the opinions of others. I will then determine practices that would be best suited for the island of Singapore.
In this report, I shall be attempting to approach the following topic: Death; practices that can maximize land use in a land-scarce society. Singapore’s lack of space is a very real and major problem that everyone is probably aware of at this point as such the government has taken on a multitude of measures and plans to counteract this problem. However one action that Singapore has undertaken over the years to remedy the problem which has fascinated me is the exhumation of cemeteries so as to make way for residential buildings and roadways. With so many cemeteries having been exhumed by our government, very few cemeteries currently remain intact in Singapore, with only one cemetery actually open for burials currently. As such we have been forced to move past burials and find other practices that could prove to be more effective in this society. However, when tackling this issue, I believe that it is best to take into consideration factors such as environmental impact, feasibility, cost, religious reasons, moral and ethical reasoning, and of course space. Therefore, taking note of the above factors, I feel that is a worthwhile endeavor to find out what is the most effective practice in the land scarce society of Singapore.
To answer my inquiry question, I will be researching on the different practices used such as burial and cremation. I will also research on the actions that the government intends to take and determine what problems the government could face in implementing these plans and projects. Research will also be conducted on different religions and their customs and practices regarding burial. Analysis will also carried out to find out the environmental impacts of the different practices and whether any measures can be taken against them. On top of that I will also be conducting interviews on the matter at hand. The interviews aim to find out what the general populace thinks of the current situation revolving around exhumation of cemeteries, especially the Bukit Brown cemetery. The interviews also aim to determine what they feel that the government should do next, and how we can move on from this point.
From all the data collected, I will then consider and weigh all the different aspects and from there propose a method that is feasible and would allow for Singapore to maximize land use.
The purpose of this literature review is to analyze the different burial or cremation methods, and determine the effectiveness and feasibility of each practice in Singapore.
We will first look at burials, specifically natural burials that are meant to benefit the environment and in some cases even protect natural wildlife. Natural burial is the method of burying bodies in the earth, natural burials allow for the decomposing body to provide nutrients to the surrounding flora and fauna, biodegradable materials can also be used to make the coffins. According to a letter by Matthew H Holden and McDonald-Madden (2017), another form of natural burial is conservation burial, in which the fee for the burial goes towards the attainment and management of a certain area. This process benefits the surrounding habitats, ecosystems and wildlife. In a journal investigating into the effect of the human body after death on the environment by Carter, D. O., Yellowlees, D., and Tibbett, M. (2007), a decomposing cadaver was found to be a good source of nutrients. The human body has a low carbon to nitrogen ratio allowing for decomposition to occur easier, the body also has a high nutritional content which is beneficial for plant life. It was also concluded that the human body provides more nutrients to an area as compared to plant matter or manure. Therefore, the method of burial in fact provides a positive impact for the surrounding environment, benefitting plant life and in turn helping the ecosystems. However, the method of natural burial in Singapore is not very plausible to put into practice due to our lack of space. As such this is a method that would work better in other countries in which land is less scarce. Another problem that this poses is the fact that the digging of soil repeatedly over a specific area to bury the bodies will actually loosen and weaken the soil, resulting in wildlife being unable to flourish properly.
A common practice that is utilized to preserve the body is embalming. A study was produced by Erich Brenner (2014) on the subject of preservation of bodies. In the study, Brenner writes about the history of embalming and then details the chemicals that go into embalming and what is the usability of these embalming processes. Embalming generally involves the process of injecting chemicals into the body, so as to prevent the body from decomposing for a period of time. The embalming solution is a mixture of mainly formaldehyde, methanol and glutaraldehyde. One of the chemicals used in the embalming solution formaldehyde, which is used to stiffen the tissue of the body, is considered to be extremely dangerous and toxic (National Toxicology Program 2010). Formaldehyde is so hazardous in fact that it has been placed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of top ten most hazardous chemicals for damaging the environment. In an extensive review conducted by the National Toxicology Program ‘Final Report on Carcinogens Background Document for Formaldehyde’, formaldehyde was found to provide negative impacts on humans, with connections between cancer and the compound being drawn. On top of all of that, when an embalmed cadaver is buried, the chemicals that have been injected into the body may seep out into the ground. As such the formaldehyde from the embalming process will be released into the surrounding soil. This will in turn pose a hazard to the surrounding plant life, damaging root systems and posing a possible threat to ecosystems. Therefore, due to this large negative impact on the environment from embalming, it is a pointless process that we should refrain from using.
Cremation is the process of heating bodies to extremely high temperatures, so as to disintegrate them. Bodies are generally heated at a temperature of 870 to 980°C so as to ensure that the body is fully disintegrated. The process takes anywhere from 90 minutes to 2 hours for cremation to be complete. The products gained from this are bone fragments which are then pulverized in the final step of cremation, resulting in the ash that we are familiar with. Looking at cremation from an environmental aspect, the cremated remains contain a high pH of around 11.5 and have a high sodium content, this results in cremated remains being toxic towards plants. Cremated remains are also rich in calcium and phosphorous which could affect the acidity or alkalinity of the soil, damaging plant life. Cremated remains also contain a small mass of mercury, this mercury is normally removed by the crematories, but if this harmful pollutant is released into the environment through the ashes, it could pose a hazard to the flora and fauna. However it is hard to determine what effect cremated remains have on soil, this is because currently only anecdotal evidence exists, with no experiments or research conducted to back up these claim. It can be concluded that cremation remains do not pose as much of a threat to the environment as compared to burial. However, due to the high temperatures required for the process of cremation, crematorium furnaces require a lot of energy to run, with just one cremation requiring around 106 liters of fuel. On top of that, the process of cremation releases a large amount of greenhouse gases into the environment. Due to the disintegration of the cadaver, harmful gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and hydrogen fluoride are emitted. In a study conducted by the Cremation Association of North America, it was found that filtering cremation fumes had little to no effect on the toxins and gases released. As such, it is hard to reduce the amount of harmful gases released in the process of cremation. However, despite all the negative impacts cremation has on the environment, cremation is currently the most common practice in Singapore. This is due to the fact that cremation is the most efficient method in terms of space usage, as such it is fitting for a society that has a lack of space such as Singapore.
However besides the environmental aspects of these processes, we also have to factor in the religious aspects. In Catholicism, cremation used to not be encouraged, however now it is allowed as long as the cremation is carried out after funeral processions; this is because the body is preferred to be present for the funeral mass. On top of that, the cremated remains should not be scattered, but rather buried underground typically in an urn. For Buddhists, cremation and embalming is allowed, if the body is cremated, the remains can be collected by the family. As such, for Catholics and Buddhists, both burial and cremation are allowed. In Hinduism on the other hand, all Hindus are cremated, excluding babies and saints. This is because babies and saints are believed to be pure and that their soul is unattached to their bodies. Finally, for Muslims, cremation and embalming is forbidden. For Muslims, the cadaver has to be buried as soon as possible after death. This results in problems arising as Muslims cannot be transported over long distances, as such Muslims living or working in other countries are unable to be buried back in their hometown. As such, of all the major religious groups in Singapore, only Muslims forbid cremation, whilst only Hindus forbid burial. Therefore we will have to take this into consideration when determining the best method.
The most recent cemetery that our government has made plans to exhume is the Bukit Brown Cemetery. In 2011, LTA announced that plans were made for a dual four-lane road linking Adam Flyover and Macritchie Viaduct would be built over Bukit Brown cemetery. The rest of the cemetery is also set for redevelopment into new residential estates. This decision resulted in multiple heritage groups protesting against the authorities as they believed that our heritage would be lost with the exhumation of the cemetery.
As such, for the data collection in this project, I opted for an interview to gather data on this topic. The purpose of this interview is to find out what others think of the current situation revolving around Bukit Brown and find out what they think should be done to remedy the situation. The targeted audience of this interview is people who are aware of the situation revolving around the exhumation of Bukit Brown cemetery.
Do you agree or disagree with the government’s decision to exhume the Bukit Brown cemetery? Why?
(If interviewee agrees) What are your personal opinions on those fighting to save the cultural heritage which Bukit Brown holds?
(If interviewee disagrees) What do you think the government should do to remedy the situation?
What do you think is the best funeral process that is suited for a land-scarce city such as Singapore?
I interviewed 20 individuals to find out on their opinions relating to the matter. Of the twenty interviewees, 13 of them said that they disagreed with the government’s decision, whilst 7 of them said that they agreed with the government’s decision. For the 13 interviewees who disagreed with the government’s decision, the general response for all of them was that the cemetery held a lot of cultural heritage and that by exhuming, all the heritage would be lost forever. One of the interviewees who has participated in multiple tours in Bukit Brown says that the cemetery hosts the graves of many influential people who have contributed towards the development of Singapore. Another one of the interviewees who has a relative buried in the cemetery says that a lot of people especially those with relatives buried in the cemetery hold a strong connection to the cemetery, with many bearing strong emotional feelings due to the decision for the exhumation of the cemetery.
On the other hand, there were 7 interviewees who agreed with the actions of the government. The general consensus of those interviewed was that as a society we have to be constantly working to move forward, and we have to focus on development. One interview stated that since Singapore is such a land-scarce island, we have to make efficient use of every inch of whatever space we have.
The 7 interviewees who agreed with the actions of the government showed mixed opinions towards those who were fighting to prevent the exhumation of Bukit Brown cemetery. One interviewee said that he sympathizes with the activists for Bukit Brown, however he felt that we should not let heritage hold us in the past. The interviewee further states that there are many other ways to protect and preserve the heritage that currently exists and preserving Bukit Brown is not necessary to preserve our heritage and culture.
The 13 interviewees who disagreed with the actions of the government generally believed that it was not necessary for the government to exhume the cemetery. One interviewee stated that the new highway that was to be constructed was not necessary. He claimed that rather than constructing a highway that cut through the cemetery, LTA could instead expand the existing highway to remedy the problem of traffic jams in the area. This solution may still result in some graves being exhumed from the edge of the cemetery but nowhere close to the amount of graves that would have to be exhumed if LTA were to go through with their current plan.
Regarding how we should move on from the decision, the interviewees again had mixed opinions. Most interviewees stated that cremation is the best option for us Singaporeans right now due to our lack of space. However one interviewee suggested building a large building for burial, this way the government could maximize the usage of space.
For a land scarce island such as Singapore, cremation seems to be the most fitting choice and I believe that it is. Burials are not feasible at all due to our city’s limited space, as such embalming is also out of the question. Although it will be necessary to keep one cemetery open to house Muslim burials, due to the fact that it is forbidden for Muslims to be cremated. However, cremation should not be thought of as a permanent solution as it has many negative environmental impacts, as such we should be ready to switch to new methods. One such example is alkaline hydrolysis which is the process of using high temperature water and potassium hydroxide to wear down the body until only the bones are left, the result of this is similar to cremation. Therefore, we should wait for this technology to be developed further and then use it when it is readily available.
For the situation revolving around Bukit Brown, I believe that in the long run our government has no choice but to redevelop the land. As a country that strives for development and success, we must be constantly developing our island so as to not fall behind. However I feel that the government should leave a small area of land to preserve the ecosystems present in the cemetery and also leave behind a memorial to preserve our heritage.
Throughout this project, I have learnt many things pertaining to burial and cremation in Singapore. As this was my first time writing a report by myself, I was met with many unprecedented challenges all along the way. One major challenge that I faced was finally drawing a conclusion to my hypothesis. As each method had their pros and cons, I found it hard to weigh out the importance of each of the factors. From space usage to religion, I had to determine how important each of the individual factors were. On top of that, since each method had its drawbacks that were not easily solved, the conclusion that I ended up coming to was not perfect or ideal in the slightest.
Besides that, for the Bukit Brown cemetery, there was no set answer for what actions the government should take. Since it is a fight between practicality and ethics, it is hard to determine a clear winner. As such, taking a side and deciding on what would be best for our society was not easy.
Another limitation was the interview, in my opinion, the scope of the interview was too narrow. For starters, I wanted to interview more people on the topic at hand. However, besides that I also wanted to interview people who were not aware of the Bukit Brown situation prior to the interview to gain their opinion on the matter as well.
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