Bittersweet day as bones, and memories, are dug up at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery

Heritage and Community Correspondent Melody Zaccheus goes behind the scenes to witness two exhumations at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery

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The Fong family exhumes the grave of an ancestor, following the rituals of Yin Feng Shui. The grave is one of some 45,000 Chinese graves at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery that have to be cleared to make way for the expansion of Tengah Air Base.

It is 8am, and four members of the Teo family have arrived in a taxi at the Catholic section of Choa Chu Kang Cemetery.

Their smiles are forced. They are there for a sombre task - to exhume the remains of their father who died at 78 of a heart attack in 2006.

They want to move him to a columbarium in St Anne's Church in Sengkang to be with his late wife.

Like them, other families will also have to arrange for exhumation soon. Last month, the Government said that from end-2018, it will be exhuming 80,500 graves in phases at the cemetery to make way for the expansion of Tengah Air Base.

The Government will bear the costs, but families can arrange for private exhumations for $1,000 or more.

On July 28, The Sunday Times observed a process that is usually a private family experience.

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The Teos were first directed to say a prayer by Mr Darren Tan of Memories of Life, a provider of after-death services.

Death is not a topic that people usually want to discuss, and digging up the dead is a daunting task.

Gravedigger Yow Moom Lam, 62, stepped into the grave that had been dug up by workers the day before. With his bare hands, he searched the earth for the late Mr Anthony Teo's bones.

The leg bones, which clinked together like the sound of jade on jade, emerged first. They were intact and strikingly large and heavy.

"Papa was very, very strong and tall," chimed in his daughter Irene Teo, 61, a jewellery store manager.

There was no holding back the tears when Mr Yow scooped out Mr Teo's skull, using his fingers to remove wet silt and sediment trapped inside the eye sockets and mouth.

His children cried out: "Papa, rest in peace, rest in peace, papa."

Fighting back tears, they watched as Mr Yow and Mr Tan rinsed the bones with rice wine - a traditional practice to kill germs.

The remains were then sent for cremation.

The entire experience was bittersweet for Ms Irene Teo.

She and her father were "like buddies" and when she saw his bones, she felt a sinking sadness.

"I've mixed feelings seeing my dad go through this (exhumation). It brings back memories of how strong he was when he was alive and how he carried me as a child.

"It also brings me back to the day of his burial," she said.

Burying a loved one gives family members a chance to grieve in their own time.

It presents itself as a natural process of dust returning to dust.

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser noted how no human intervention is involved and nature is allowed to take its course.

In contrast, cremating soon after death can be jarring for some family members, as the bodies of their loved ones transform into ashes.

Seeing my mother's anguished cries for my grandmother at that very stage in 2007 pained me.

One moment she was holding her mother's hand, and the next, the body was ashes.

But like the Teo family, Singaporeans understand the need for land, the eventuality of exhumation - the 1998 burial policy limits grave leases to 15 years - and the practicality of housing remains in columbaria.

However, some families still struggle with the idea of "disturbing the resting dead" and their inability to honour their loved one's wish to be buried. Then there is the emotional process of exhumation.

But the Teo family was consoled by the thought of their parents being reunited.

After cremation, Mr Teo's remains are packed into the urn before they are sent to the columbarium at St Anne's Church. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

After the late Mr Teo's ashes were put in a white marble urn, with the skull fragments the last to go in, it was placed at St Anne's Church that same evening. Ms Teo said: "It feels like I've done my part and reunited my dad with my mum at the columbarium. It is a good feeling."

THE undulating terrain of Choa Chu Kang Cemetery can be calming. Old trees tower over rows of tombstones lit by the early morning sun, a distraction from the grief tugging at the hearts of the living passing through.

At dusk, the sky melts into soft hues of dark pink, purple and blue.

The broken remains of a headstone after exhumation. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Against this backdrop, Mr Fong Long Wah, 63, watched as his grandmother's remains were exhumed to be relocated alongside his parents' ashes at the Tse Tho Aum temple in Sin Ming. The family had planned for this ahead of the Government's announcement of the airbase's expansion.

The late Madam Yik Miew Ming was a tailor at a shophouse in North Bridge Road. She had one son whom she raised alone.

Mr Fong's eyes pooled with tears as he recalled the day she died.

On the last day of his national service, she collapsed from a heart attack in her flat. She was 73.

It was Oct 16, 1974, he said, adding: "I was the one who carried her down and put her in the ambulance. She was still breathing.

"Then she opened her eyes, looked at me and she was gone.

"I was the last person to see her."

His son, Mr Fong Chun Cheong, 35, an yin fengshui practitioner who is used to presiding over exhumations, took the lead that evening.

Mr Fong Chun Cheong knocking at the base of the tombstone as the relatives face away. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

He knocked at the base of the tombstone, a gentle tap to rouse the dead from their slumber and to inform them of the relocation, he said.

A gravedigger then took over.

After two hours, he retrieved the bones delicately and picked up her hearing aid and her spectacles.

"Yi eh bak gia (her glasses)," exclaimed the older Mr Fong's wife, Madam Low Yoke Leng, 63, in Hokkien. The elderly man moved urgently to the front to have a look.

Memories came flooding back.

The spectacles and hearing aid of Madam Yik Miew Ming. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

His grandmother would put on her glasses to read the Chinese newspapers to him every evening when he was young.

Lying on a thin mattress on the floor of her shophouse, listening to her stories, he learnt about life's hardships in Singapore's early days.

When she died, he put on her glasses for her. "I still wanted her to read to me. We were very, very close," he said.

Neighbours knew her as the "deaf lady". "I put her hearing aid on her (before she was buried) so that she could hear me if I wanted to talk to her, and so that she could rest peacefully," he added.

As he walked away from the grave, Mr Fong said he was at peace.

"I carried her in my arms 43 years ago. Now, after seeing her bones, my heart feels better because I feel a sense of closure."

WITH the exhumations done and dusted, I realised that the touching aspects of the process outweigh the heart-wrenching moments.

It was emotional but also beautiful and rewarding, as memories that had been closeted by the passage of time resurfaced.

I realised death was not something to fear. Not being remembered and loved is.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 06, 2017, with the headline Bittersweet day as bones, and memories, are dug up at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery. Subscribe