Veteran gravedigger can name every bone

Gravedigger Yow Moom Lam (left) with Mr Johnny Tan of Chua Chu Kang Marble Company. Mr Tan said Mr Yow explains to family members present at an exhumation what each retrieved bone is.
Gravedigger Yow Moom Lam (left) with Mr Johnny Tan of Chua Chu Kang Marble Company. Mr Tan said Mr Yow explains to family members present at an exhumation what each retrieved bone is.PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

When his 10-year-old son started developing a taste for branded goods, including expensive backpacks, gravedigger Yow Moom Lam, 62, took him to his "office".

Mr Yow said: "I showed him what I did - moving stone, soil and human remains. He never asked me for branded goods again."

Mr Yow, who has tanned skin, dirt embedded in his finger nails and a kind smile, started work as a gravedigger at 15.

He said: "I lived in the Bishan area and back then, as an adolescent, I was surrounded by exhumations as Singapore developed. From standing on the sidelines and watching men work on the graves there, I picked up the skills."

Today, he does 20 to 30 exhumations on average in a month. And after 50 years on the job, he can name each bone he retrieves.

Mr Johnny Tan of Chua Chu Kang Marble Company, 69, who has been working with Mr Yow for decades, said: "He explains to family members observing the exhumation what each bone is - from the jaw to the fingers to the ribs."

 
 

Mr Yow takes about 30 minutes to retrieve remains in each grave. He is unperturbed that his job may appear macabre and feels "pain in the heart" only when he exhumes the graves of young children.

Speaking in Chinese to The Sunday Times, he said he has no personal rituals before or after an exhumation. He simply prepares some water in his truck to wash his hands after his work is done.

"If you do the work with care, respect and the right intentions, nothing will happen. After all, you are helping the dead relocate; you're doing something good for them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline 'Veteran can name every bone'. Print Edition | Subscribe