He paid his respects at wrong grave for 39 years

National Environment Agency workers conducting exhumations at Choa Chu Kang Chinese Cemetery. The agency said this is the first time it has encountered this misalignment issue in the 16,800 exhumations conducted as of Sept 30 under Phase 7 of its exh
National Environment Agency workers conducting exhumations at Choa Chu Kang Chinese Cemetery. The agency said this is the first time it has encountered this misalignment issue in the 16,800 exhumations conducted as of Sept 30 under Phase 7 of its exhumation programme at the cemetery.PHOTO: LIANHE WANBAO

NEA unearths misalignment of tombstones at CCK Cemetery that affected nine graves

For 39 years, Mr Marn Chuan Lee would visit his grandmother's grave at least once every three months to pay his respects, keeping the grave plot tidy and even installing garden lights by her tombstone.

However, when the grave in Choa Chu Kang Chinese Cemetery was exhumed in August, he knew that it did not belong to his grandmother as it contained stuffed toys, colour pencils and a necklace he did not recognise.

The 50-year-old was shocked. "It felt like someone had kidnapped her and we had no idea where she could be," he told The Straits Times.

He informed the National Environment Agency (NEA), which on Oct 2 exhumed two unclaimed graves adjacent to the one that supposedly belonged to Mr Marn's grandmother. Based on NEA's analysis, the tombstone of one grave was misaligned, which led to other adjacent headstones being wrongly tagged to grave plots.

However, the adjacent graves contained men's clothing and nothing resembling the elderly woman's belongings.

Mr Marn finally found his grandmother's remains on Oct 11, after the NEA exhumed five more graves.

Responding to queries yesterday, an NEA spokesman said that the burials were performed on the same day 39 years ago.

ONE HEADSTONE, TWO PLOTS

The next of kin of one of the grave plots did not erect a headstone and due to the misalignment, one of the headstones was found to be straddling the space over two grave plots.

AN NEA SPOKESMAN, who said the burials were done on the same day 39 years ago.

"The next of kin of one of the grave plots did not erect a headstone and due to the misalignment, one of the headstones was found to be straddling the space over two grave plots," the spokesman added.

The misalignment affected a total of nine graves.

 

The spokesman added that NEA has since verified the buried remains with all the affected families. The agency also apologised for the inconvenience caused.

This is the first time NEA has encountered such an issue in the 16,800 exhumations conducted as of Sept 30 under Phase 7 of its exhumation programme at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery, its spokesman said.

Mr Marn said he was "going crazy" waiting for NEA to help locate his grandmother's remains.

"I couldn't focus at work, eat or sleep," he said, adding that he contacted Chinese evening daily Lianhe Wanbao about the matter because he felt helpless.

The NEA spokesman said the agency was initially unable to proceed further as it needed to exhume the adjacent graves to verify the buried remains with its records.

But some of the graves were unclaimed and the window for claims was still open then, she noted. The deadline to register claims lapsed on Sept 30.

About 8,500 graves have yet to be claimed, said NEA. Any unclaimed remains will be cremated and stored for three years before being given a sea burial.

Mr Marn has since cremated his grandmother's remains, but said he is afraid of storing her ashes at a crematorium in case there is a mix-up again. He was close to his grandmother. She had cared for him and his six siblings while they were growing up until she died when he was 12.

He is keeping her ashes in his house while waiting to house them in a Chinese temple.

Mr Marn said: "I only just got (my grandmother) back. I am scared I might lose her again."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2019, with the headline 'He paid his respects at wrong grave for 39 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe