Skeletons in his closet

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 27, 2013

At home or at work, embalmer Bony Sim, 47, is surrounded by dead bodies.

The father of three has amassed a collection of about 20 animal bones and skulls. These consist of the remains of turtles, wild boars, monkeys and even his wife's late chihuahua Mickey.

"My late father was the one who started collecting. Then he passed them to me and I collected more," recalls Mr Sim, chief operating officer of Mandaicorp Funeral Service Singapore.

Mr Sim's father Anthony, who died in 1991, worked for Rediffusion as a technician.

Some remains were collected from places such as Bukit Timah and coastal areas, and then cleaned and sterilised by Mr Sim himself.

For example, he buried Mickey in Seletar before unearthing the remains three years later. "A chihuahua is like a dinosaur because the lower jaw is separated from the upper one to enable it to chew," notes Mr Sim.

Other items in his collection, like the bones of an antelope and a preserved bullfrog, were bought from places such as Indonesia and Cameron Highlands.

In case you are wondering, yes, Bony really is his name. His parents had wanted to name him Bonnie but it was misspelt on his birth certificate.

Ask him whether he thinks it is apt, given his hobby, he replies deadpan: "I'm happy with my name. I like it because it's unique and people easily remember me."

It might well be said that Mr Sim has something of a passion for death. After all, the former aircraft fuel specialist left his old job for his current one.

His fascination with death also began as a child, when he witnessed funeral processions in his Bukit Ho Swee estate and was later drawn to stories about Anubis, the Egyptian god of the afterlife.

In 2006, he started Uncle Bony's Outdoor Lab, a mobile workshop operating out of his van. As part of the workshop, he gave talks at schools, community centres and libraries about his collection, and let the curious have a feel of the bones.

For his efforts, Mr Sim says he is usually paid a nominal amount that covers his transport costs. He adds that it is more about giving something back to society. "We are Asian, so it is a way to educate people and remove that stigma about death," he says. "It is so that everyone can see that there is nothing to be afraid of, and that bones are a beautiful thing. They are inside all of us."

Did you know that the human body has 300 bones at birth but only 206 by the time we reach adulthood, he asks. This is because many of the soft bones have fused together.

His bone collection is placed on shelves in his study in his Serangoon North flat. Mr Sim explains: "They have been sterilised and they don't really need special maintenance, so long as they are well preserved and well handled."

While he used to purchase animal bones once or twice a year - spending about $10 each time - Mr Sim says he has stopped buying so often as there is not enough space at home.

And the last time he cleaned and sterilised an animal by himself - using preserving agents - was several years back, when he discovered the skull of a baby monkey near a reservoir.

He says it usually does not take much effort to clean the bones because the remains have already dried up. "In fact, it is so dry that I have to moisturise it to prevent it from falling apart."

What do his wife and his three children, aged six to 14, think of his passion for the remains of the dead and do they share his interest?

Mr Sim says wryly: "She knows it's my passion - she has no comments about it. My kids will just touch and look around the collection every now and then."

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This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 27, 2013 

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