No one will collect these ashes

After cremation, some ashes are left unclaimed for various reasons, but one undertaker takes it upon himself to scatter them at sea

Six plain white cotton bags sit in a cabinet above the display urns at the Trinity Casket office in Sin Ming Drive.

Weighing between 1kg and 2kg each, the bags hold the ashes of Singaporeans that were not collected by their families. The oldest bag dates back to 1997.

After cremation, ashes are usually collected by the dead's families - to be stored in a niche, kept at home or scattered at sea.

But in some cases, the ashes are left with the crematoriums and funeral companies, either because the dead was destitute or his family chose not to collect the ashes.

This situation is not unique to Singapore. A BBC News Magazine report last month says many urns of ashes go uncollected in Britain, with one in Southampton dating back to 1975.

In Singapore, the Mandai Crematorium has seen about 1,000 cases of ashes left unclaimed since 2008 - about 1.3 per cent of the total number of cremations done.

A spokesman for the National Environment Agency, which has jurisdiction over the crematorium, says next-of-kin are informed that the ashes can be collected the day after the cremation, and most do pick them up.

"Under the law, ashes have to be kept for at least 14 days before they can be disposed of," the spokesman says.

"In practice, the National Environment Agency will hold on to the unclaimed ashes until there is a sufficient amount to arrange for a disposal at sea."

The National Environment Agency does not charge for the storage of the unclaimed ashes.

Some ashes also end up with funeral companies. A check with 10 show that half have seen such cases.

Says Mr Dave Lim, 50, operations manager at Trinity Casket, which specialises in Christian funerals: "After the cremation, the families would ask us to collect the ashes on their behalf and store them in our office cabinet for a month while they decide what to do with them."

Subsequent calls to some families go unanswered, he says, and some numbers are no longer in use. Reminder letters also get no response.

After a year or two, Mr Lim gets the message - nobody will collect the ashes.

"So we keep them in the cabinet - respectfully and indefinitely," he says. "It's just the proper thing to do."

He adds that the families do not give reasons for not collecting the ashes. He would not ask them either.

Ms Ho Shee Wai, director and registered psychologist of The Counselling Place, suggests that some families might have had an acrimonious or even no relationship with the dead so, to them, cremation signifies the end of their familial "obligation".

She adds: "Family members might also not agree on what to do with the ashes or who should be responsible for it, so it is easier to not deal with the situation by not collecting it."

Hindu Casket manager Roy Selvarajah, 53, says those whose religion does not place much importance on ashes - like some Buddhists from Myanmar - are not likely to collect them after cremation.

His company leaves uncollected ashes at the crematorium to be disposed of accordingly.

Undertaker Roland Tay, 67, who owns three funeral companies, including Tong Aik Undertaker and Direct Funeral Services, takes it upon himself to scatter uncollected ashes at sea.

For the last 10 years, he has been chartering boats with monks onboard to recite prayers and present offerings before scattering the unclaimed ashes. He does this for 10 to 20 sets every two months.

He says: "Some family members prefer that I do the scattering for them since I'm going out to sea anyway. They also feel comfortable because I've been doing this for a long time.

"To me, everyone - no matter who they were or what they did in life - deserves a proper farewell."

bang@sph.com.sg