My Turf

Death and renewal for iconic Mount Vernon

One of the funeral service halls at Mount Vernon. It was converted from a former crematorium. According to Mr Ang Ziqian, funeral service halls grew in popularity in the last decade and families have even delayed loved ones' wakes to wait for availab
Mount Vernon's iconic columbarium features slabs of niches which have been laid out in a palm shape or stacked around in various levels of a pagoda that has since become the neighbourhood's landmark.ST PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR
One of the funeral service halls at Mount Vernon. It was converted from a former crematorium. According to Mr Ang Ziqian, funeral service halls grew in popularity in the last decade and families have even delayed loved ones' wakes to wait for availab
One of the funeral service halls at Mount Vernon. It was converted from a former crematorium. According to Mr Ang Ziqian, funeral service halls grew in popularity in the last decade and families have even delayed loved ones' wakes to wait for available halls in the area. ST PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR
One of the funeral service halls at Mount Vernon. It was converted from a former crematorium. According to Mr Ang Ziqian, funeral service halls grew in popularity in the last decade and families have even delayed loved ones' wakes to wait for availab
Parts of the lush greenery in the once forested Mount Vernon area are making way for new Housing Board flats in the upcoming Bidadari estate. ST PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR

My Turf is a fortnightly series that shares untold stories of our neighbourhoods. In this instalment, we take a look at Mount Vernon Sanctuary, which will soon be redeveloped.

When Mr Ang Ziqian won the tender to operate funeral parlours at Mount Vernon in 2009, the former crematorium was, in his words, "in need of a complete makeover".

Doors and windows were falling off their hinges, and termites had infested the wood to the extent that insecticide had to be poured down 297 specially drilled holes.

But over three months, Mount Vernon Sanctuary, which comes under the Ang Chin Moh Group, of which Mr Ang is deputy chairman, turned two of three crematoriums into six funeral halls in the middle of a forested hill.

According to Mr Ang, funeral service halls grew in popularity in the last decade and families have even delayed loved ones' wakes to wait for available halls at Mount Vernon.

Before this, such parlours were associated with gloom and darkness.

"Older service halls were quite depressing. We wanted to create a place where the dead could go in dignity, and the living can grieve in a peaceful setting," he said.

He described how the spruced-up service halls were supposed to open on June 1, 2010, but he brought forward the opening date by a day when the family of a dead woman asked him to make an exception.

"They said she walked her dogs around here almost every other day - they thought it was fitting that Mount Vernon would be where she would say her goodbyes," he said.

FRESH AIR AND GREENERY

When I first came here, 10 minutes on a bench, smelling the fresh air and looking at the greenery - it was better than an hour of meditation.

ANG CHIN MOH GROUP DEPUTY CHAIRMAN ANG ZIQIAN, on what the Mount Vernon area was like.

By this time, the complex had already undergone several iterations.

It opened in 1962, in response to calls from as early as the 1930s for a public crematorium, and a projection that the Japanese Cemetery would not be sufficient to handle the future number of cremations.

In 1976, Phase One of the columbarium was built. Two years later, two more funeral halls were added.

In 2004, all this came to a stop as a new crematorium in Mandai was built to replace Mount Vernon. But five years later, Mount Vernon Sanctuary and Singapore Casket - which runs two other service halls - became the new players on the scene.

This September, however, the funeral service hall tenants will have their leases terminated when their third and final extension ends.

Redevelopment plans for the area were announced in 2013. After the funeral service providers move out, the 7.1ha area will be transformed into Bidadari Park as well as two Housing Board projects.

A new funeral parlour complex, to be located in a corner of the current one, will have four more service halls than the current eight when it opens in 2024. It will occupy only a seventh of the space.

Its details are still being discussed but Mr Ang and his Singapore Casket counterpart, Mr Goh Wee Leng, hope they get a chance to run it.

Changes in the area are already being felt. "When I first came here, 10 minutes on a bench, smelling the fresh air and looking at the greenery - it was better than an hour of meditation," Mr Ang said. But as he took this reporter around the estate, the chirping of a few birds was competing with the drone of nearby construction work.

Much of the area's wildlife is also gone, a consequence of noise pollution and the removal of food sources like small trees and bushes.

Mount Vernon is an important stopover for migratory birds, according to nature photographer Francis Yap, who has noticed a marked decrease in their numbers during this migration season.

These include the globally threatened brown-chested jungle flycatcher and several cuckoo species. He has also failed to spot once-common inhabitants like the ruddy and oriental dwarf kingfishers, blue-winged pitta and hooded pitta.

Most of the site's other "residents" are also moving. About 16,000 of its 20,000 niches have been claimed by loved ones and are being re-interred at Mandai Crematorium.

Mount Vernon's iconic columbarium features slabs of niches which have been laid out in a palm shape or stacked around in various levels of a pagoda that has since become the neighbourhood's landmark. But it is also in a state of flux.

Some niche covers remain intact, with black-and-white photos of long-gone loved ones and carved dates giving in to wear and tear.

 
 

Others have been replaced with white pieces of wood, signifying that the ashes have been moved. Yet others have been unceremoniously smashed, with shards of marble left in the recess, some of them showing traces of a photo.

Public servant Dawn Tan, 30, said the serene environment at Mount Vernon helped her to cope with her godmother's passing in 2014.

"Every time we drove past, I would close my eyes, but after my godmother's wake there, it wasn't scary any more," she said.

Heritage blogger Jerome Lim also lamented the impending loss of Mount Vernon, noting that Singapore will lose a large open space that "lends itself to peace, prayer and contemplation".

With the new complex, he said: "We'll have HDBs for the living and multistorey niches for the dead."

Mr Ang said his company will look for peaceful spaces to have funeral service halls. His goal, he added, is to educate the community to accept that funeral facilities are essential.

Dr Yong Ding Li, from conservation group BirdLife International, speaking about wildlife in the area, said: "The good news is that most, if not all, of the species that were in Bidadari could be there again in the future. Animal populations are capable of recolonising a habitat over time. Mount Vernon will be different but, hopefully, we will still recognise it in some shape or form."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2018, with the headline 'Death and renewal for iconic Mt Vernon'. Print Edition | Subscribe