Living near a columbarium

Living next to a columbarium is not the end of the world. There are two in my neighbourhood


This article was first published in The Sunday Times on Feb 1, 2015

About 12 years ago, I discovered to my horror that a columbarium was being built behind my house as part of a nursing home.

In fact, it would be the second columbarium in the area.

The land behind is owned by a church. It already had a chapel there and next to it is a cluster of buildings with funeral niches inside.

But these are further away from where I live, and they have been in the neighbourhood for so long that I had grown used to them.

The idea of a new columbarium made me panic.

Dead people - and their ashes - frighten me. How scary, I thought, feeling very disturbed. I imagined spirits flying around at night.

I was also worried that the value of my house would plunge. The more I thought about it, the more angry I got about the facility being built.

I knew some people at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and asked them if columbaria are really allowed in residential estates.

Their answer, unfortunately for me, was yes, if they are part of nursing homes or places of worship.

But there are guidelines. The niches must be out of sight, preferably housed in the building's basement.

The columbarium can form only a small proportion of the total gross area of the building.

If it is above ground, there has to be a buffer between it and other buildings, and it must be screened from public view.

I guess I must have been appeased by the guidelines because I soon stopped fretting about the matter.

In any case, my fears were unfounded.

The new columbarium is not visible from the outside. Its website says the niches are housed in the basement of the nursing home, but I don't know their exact location as the building is large and sprawling.

Property values have also not fallen. In fact, they have risen by a lot.

Still, I would be lying if I said I am happy to be living near a columbarium. Of course, I would much prefer if it wasn't in my neighbourhood.

But given a choice, I also wouldn't want a host of other things in my backyard.

I wouldn't want the nursing home, for example. It houses the old and infirm who, let's face it, are a depressing sight.

Its towering blocks loom over the estate and are an architectural eyesore. It is painted pink to boot, and its loud, giant air-con compressors face my bedroom.

I wouldn't want cluster housing in my area either, because this has resulted in a lot more people and vehicles.

It irritates me how cars are haphazardly parked on both sides of the road, making it such a squeeze to drive through.

I also wouldn't want condominiums to be built in the estate. At least three mammoth developments have sprung up in recent years, blighting the skyline and adding to the area's congestion woes.

But this line of thinking is selfish and leads me nowhere.

Singapore is small and we should - where reasonable and tolerable - live and let live, even when it comes to where the dead are housed.

If I were to be jittery about places with links to the dead, I would have to steer clear of so many places in Singapore.

Ngee Ann City and Ion which sit on the old burial grounds of Orchard Road.

Bishan which used to be a cemetery.

The Upper Thomson, Mount Vernon and Lavendar areas because they are near funeral parlours and services.

The Lornie Road stretch for its proximity to the old Bukit Brown cemetery.

Mandai with its crematorium.

Choa Chu Kang which has the country's largest cemetery.

Holland Close with its Hakka graveyard.

The upcoming Bidadari HDB estate, once home to one of Singapore's most famous cemeteries.

Columbaria made the news recently when buyers of a new HDB project in Sengkang got upset upon learning one was being built near their flats.

Among other things, they were unhappy that HDB had not been more upfront about it.

They were also angry that the company which won the tender for the place-of- worship site wasn't a religious group but a for-profit company.

The matter came to a head in Parliament last week. National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan revealed that the site was not meant for a commercial columbarium and promised to "unwind" the situation.

When I first heard the story, my immediate reaction was that it was yet another example of the Not-In-My-Backyard syndrome.

I've since come round to a more sympathetic view.

If you're a first-time homeowner - which almost all the Fernvale Lea residents are - I doubt you would have willingly applied for a flat knowing there would be a columbarium nearby.

Their unhappiness is understandable and kudos to them for doing something about it, although there might still be a columbarium in Sengkang yet.

In my case, though, I had no case to fight.

I was already living in the area when the church - which apparently owned the land from way back in the 19th century - decided to include a columbarium with its nursing home.

Who says my right not to have a columbarium is greater than the church's right to build one - and serve the larger community in the process?

All in, though, it's not been that bad.

The area around the chapel is quiet and peaceful.

My father's niche is in the older columbarium, and it's nice to be able to visit it so easily.

It is also not unpleasant inside a columbarium. The niches might hold ashes, but the main feeling you sense is not fear or creepiness but love.

Everywhere you turn, you see flowers and mementoes, symbols of how people now gone are still remembered and loved, which for me is a heartwarming sight.

Mostly though, living close to the two columbaria has taught me lessons about life and death.

They are a daily reminder that life is short, precious and precarious, and life - yours and those you love - is to be treasured.

On that score at least, some good has come from living next to the dead.

Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan

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