Sungei Road

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Exhumations in Bukit Brown

I had the opportunity to witness and document the exhumation process of 4 women buried in Bukit Brown who are affected by the 8 lane highway. The tombs i witness were:
  • Lee Poh Neo ( Khoo Kay Hian's 1st wife ) - peg 1905
  • Tan Lai Neo  ( Khoo Kay Hian's 2nd wife )  - peg 1907
  • Tan Sing Yong  ( Khoo Kay Hian's 3rd wife ) - peg 1908
  • Chen Xian Niang ( Khoo Kay Hian's mother )  - peg 1910
Madam Lee Poh Neo was not buried in Bukit Brown, but because her headstone was erected, the decision by the descendant was to do an exhumation out of respect and thus exhumation practices were followed similar to the rest of the women.

Moving House 
We arrived at Bukit Brown Land Transport Authority on-site office at 8:30 am and were given a visitor pass to wear and brought by van to the site. Everything was professionally done and with us was a Land Transport Authority (LTA) officer as well as a staff from the documentation team who were engaged not only to document each tomb but to collect and catalogue the artifacts found from the tombs. The volunteer also conducted an interview with the descendant.

After saying a few words of silent prayers, the "soil breaking" process began with one swift swing of the changkul after the grave diggers assigned to the various tomb sought permission from the descendant present to proceed. The grave diggers (who usually are tomb keepers as well at various cemeteries ) are contract workers by LTA, paid on a per tomb basis that they exhumed.
Soil breaking by the various grave diggers
One of the grave digger, Mr Syed Hussein told me that graves that are from the Japanese occupation period are usually very shallow given the limited time and high mortality rate during that period compared to the tombs of pre-war period, especially tombs from wealthy family - which are likely deeper and some buried in crypts.

One of the grave diggers is a 80+ Chinese man with the stamina and energy that put me to shame. Midway digging while removing large heavy granite rocks he found, he asked me whether i wanted to take over ! I smiled meekly and told him in Hokkien that i was too weak for such a difficult task. After an hour, most of them have dug 1.8 meters in depth.
Grave diggers making fast work of the task at hand 
The level where the coffin or remains are located are usually marked by changes in the color of soil and this grave diggers with many years of experience and are able to see and feel the variation or changes in soil color. In the case of Madam Tan Sin Yong's tomb, her coffin was found to be intact and a chainsaw was used to cut through the coffin top lid.
Madam Tan Sin Yong's coffin being opened
Prior to bringing out the remains, the next step would be to put up a temporary canopy or tent. The rationale for this is because of the belief that the remains or spirit of the deceased will dispersed when exposed to direct sunlight. ( For private exhumations, sometimes this process takes place at night at the request of the family). Putting up of the canopy as you can see from the picture below is a simple process done for all of the affected graves claimed.
Canopy / Tentage being placed over  Madam Tan Lai Neo's tomb 
Finally, the picking up of the remains is next done. In the case of Madam Lee Poh Neo who was not buried there, some soil was taken and this is washed with white wine for symbolic purposes before being placed into a bag. Madam Tan Lai Neo's and Madam Chen Xian Niang coffin was almost completely disintegrated had only a few pieces of bone matter, but the grave diggers were able to identify them and place them into a plastic container.
Collecting remains of  Madam Tan Lai Neo. She was buried in a Western style coffin 
For the case of Madam Tan Sin Yong's tomb, her coffin was intact and many bones were collected and subsequently washed with Chinese wine (to remove impurities) and finally begged for cremation in Mandai.
Collecting the remains of Madam Tan Sin Yong 
Washing with Chinese wine before being bagged 
Bagging the remains for cremation and final resting place in the Columbarium


Tomb Artifacts
In exhumations, i was told that different personal artifacts have been found. This artifacts are documented by the Bukit Brown documentation team and catalogued. In some cases this artifacts are donated to the museum for future exhibitions or storage. Below are some of the artifacts commonly found during exhumation.
Earthen ware utensils found among the remains and a mirror
[Left ] Coffin Nail with wood fragments  [Right] mirror 

Western coffin side decorative
Goodbye Bukit Brown?
The exhumation marks the demise of parts of Bukit Brown. Although 4,153 graves are affected, the area of concern represents an area that represent 16% of Bukit Brown and also cuts major access points to this area. The exhumation itself destroys many unique tombs and forcibly remove many pioneers buried here. For the fortunate, they are remembered by the descendants and claimed. For the many unclaimed, they will be eventually disposed at sea. I hope more descendants will step up, to not only claim but join the efforts to save the rest of Bukit Brown as a Heritage Park for future generations.

Rest of the exhumed tombs 
Remains bagged, for cremation 
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Kim for her blessing to document this.

Related article 
Khoo Kay Hian (Bukit Brown), posted on July 30, 2012
Public Exhumations of graves started, posted on December 19, 2013

How to claim
Those who wish to claim their ancestors' remains can do so via one of the following methods:

(1) By fax and post to :

Land Transport Authority of Singapore
Survey and Lands Division
1 Hampshire Road
Block 5 Level 2
Singapore 219428
Fax : 6396 1136

(2) Register in-person at our office at the above-stated address between 8.30 a.m. and 5 p.m., Mondays to Fridays except public holidays.

(3) Visit the LTA site office at Bukit Brown Cemetery (at open area near the cemetery gate) between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., Mondays to Fridays except public holidays.

The list of names of the deceased which can be discerned from the tombstones of the Affected Graves (excluding those graves that have been claimed) can be viewed here. However, this list could not be comprehensive as some of the deceased’s full names cannot be discerned from the tombstones due to age and wear-and-tear. Next-of-kin/descendants who may have ancestors buried within the affected boundary should also contact LTA to confirm if their ancestors’ graves are affected by the exhumation exercise.

LTA would also like to inform claimants who have registered their claims of ancestors' remains, that the exhumation of the Affected Graves will be carried out in stages after 15th April 2013. All registered claimants will be notified via post prior to the exhumation date.

References
Exhumation form. [website] Land Transport Authority 
Final exhumation notice. [website] Land Transport Authority 

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