SINGAPORE - The upcoming closure of Mount Vernon Colubarium Complex will leave an ageing Singapore without a fifth of its publicly available funeral parlours.
The complex, including its eight service halls, will close in September to make way for new Housing Board flats and a park. But its replacement - a new complex with 12 funeral parlours occupying a fraction of the current space - will be ready only in 2024.
That leaves about 32 such halls which have no religious restrictions for wakes and other funeral rites. There are 13 along Sin Ming Drive, 10 halls in the Singapore Casket's building on Lavender Street, six halls in the Teochew Funeral Parlour in Ubi, two in Geylang Bahru and one in Toa Payoh Industrial Hub.
While the majority of Singaporeans bid farewell to their loved ones at one of the 10,000 Housing Board void decks or multi-purpose pavilions, funeral directors said they have noticed more people turning to funeral parlours in recent years.
Mount Vernon Sanctuary owner Ang Ziqian, whose company operates six halls in Mount Vernon, said the demand for funeral parlours has been on the rise since 2010, when operators began upgrading their venues so they would not be "shabby, dark and uncomfortable."
Such halls are also a practical option for today's smaller families, who can lock up the place to rest at night during the wake, which is usually around three days, he added.
The worry is that there may not be enough parlours to accommodate the needs of an ageing society in the near-term.
Association of Funeral Directors president Roland Tay said he expects people to "run around trying to find a resting place for their loved ones" once the leases at Mount Vernon end in September.
As it is, some families have experienced a space crunch, what with the Singapore Casket's Lavender building and its 10 halls being out of commission as it has been undergoing renovation since last October. At least one family has had to delay a loved one's funeral due to the shortage of spaces.
But Singapore Casket chief executive Goh Wee Leng said that holding a funeral at a parlour is a personal choice, and that families can also hold wakes at void decks or at open spaces near their homes.
"We offer 'night care' for wakes at void decks and other non-parlour spaces for those customers who need someone to watch over the space," she said.
The National Environment Agency, Urban Redevelopment Authority and Housing Board said in a joint reply that there are "currently sufficient wake spaces available to those who need them."
Noting that the need for "essential community facilities like funeral parlours" is likely to increase, given the ageing population, they said the Government will continue to monitor the demand to ensure that there are sufficient facilities.
In the meantime, some funeral parlours are preparing to ramp up capacity where they can.
For example, although the Teochew Funeral Parlour currently uses three halls, but this can go up to six if needed, a staff member said.
And the Singapore Casket's Lavender building will have 12 halls by March, up from 10, to make up for its two Mount Vernon ones.
But Mount Vernon Sanctuary's Mr Ang, who is on the lookout for space for future service halls, said there should be funeral parlours in every region in Singapore, just as there are hospitals - and that these should be built sooner rather than later.
He added that he hopes the public's aversion to funeral parlours in neighbourhood precincts can be abated over time and through education.
"When we recognise that death is the final stage of life, we will live life more meaningfully," he said.