A poignant visit to a Singapore columbarium

When I wrote Visiting a Columbarium in Singapore last week, I looked the word ‘columbarium’ up in a dictionary. This word escaped me. English is not my first language, and I presumed native English speakers would have mastered this word that I didn’t.

My assumption was wrong.

When I got back to England, a few English friends told me the word ‘columbarium’ baffled them too.

It prompted me to write a follow-up post on my visit to Choa Chu Kang columbarium in Singapore.

Serenity engulfed me when I entered the vast, warm, sun-lit building. An Indian cleaner smiled politely. He was washing the corridors. He sprayed water from the hose. The floor was immaculately clean. Breezy winds carried scents of sweetness.

Most niches have had visitors. Artificial flowers adorned the neatly laid-out niches. Some tired flowers were coated with dusts. Natural sunlight discoloured some vibrant chrysanthamum and carnations.

My brother told me the deceased were grouped together by their religion. We only visited the Christian section. Couples are placed next to each other.

I saw a poignant handwritten note left by one visitor to a loved aunt.

A note of love: "I miss you very much."

A note of love: “I miss you very much.”

The design of the buildings resembles what you see in any modern Singapore community. You are identified by your block number, and when you die, also by your niche number. You have upstairs and downstairs. Your neighbours are mostly Indians, Malays and Chinese. In death, you’re surrounded by people of the same faith.

Some people may have lived a miserable life, yet in death, Singapore government gives them a decent, clean, decluttered resting place.

A few years ago, when the Singapore government claimed the cemetery for development, relatives were invited to observe the exhumation. My eldest brother represented the family to oversee the operation. He bore the sweltering tropical heat for half a day.

Remarkably, my grandmother’s earrings and a jade bracelet were discovered after nearly 40 years.

My brother faced another tough task to collect his brother’s remains. The 4-year-old boy died 48 years ago. The grass and weeds were overgrown, and some graves piled on top of each other. “How would I ever know if I had collected the right remains of my brother? ” My brother wasn’t sure. He simply trusted anything he was given.

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40 thoughts on “A poignant visit to a Singapore columbarium

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    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Qiquan,

      We are neighbours. My family also lives in Clementi, where I had just spent for a month. My mother came from China just a few years before the war. She didn’t get to go back till 40 years later.

      1. qiquan

        That is exactly the same as my father, my father also went back for a visit to my aunt, her sister, after more than 40 years of separation, and now my father has gone, I don’t have good contact with relatives in China anymore. It is a very sad thing, that when our elders have gone, a part of the history, is also gone.

        I live in Clementi West with my sisters, BLK 717, just next to the west coast park. I only came back to Singapore in last Nov.


  2. Anna

    I visited my late husband there every week. His niche is in A2/08. Will be there again next week. He passed away in June this year but I still find it hard to accept. Really really sad! Never regretted putting him there instead of Mandai Columbarium as it is only 15 minutes’ drive away from home. Good if a bench is erected inside.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Anna,

      Thank you very much for leaving me this message about your personal story. The niches of your husband and my grandmother are so close together! It’s such a small world, indeed.

      The columbarium is such a beautiful and peaceful place. I was surprised to find that it was so neatly maintained, and I do hope that you draw strength from your visits and are re-assured each day that this is a perfect resting place for your husband, and this place brings you more sweet memories than sadness.

      I wish you all the best.

      Yes — it would be nice if there are some benches, for people to reflect and enjoy moments of peace.

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  33. Karen Chia

    Hi Janet
    This might sound odd coming from a stranger on distant shores but I was moved by your post and your blogs. My Dad passed away over 2 years ago and our family does find comfort when we visit his niche. Inspired by your post and our own experiences, we decided to open a store dedicated to selling floral bouquets for niches. Friends have commented that we should consider selling them for weddings (a more auspicious and joyful occasion) instead. However, we wanted to remember loved ones that have already departed as they often get forgotten. I guess it’s our own way of staying connected to Dad 🙂 When you are free, take a look at petite blossoms. It would be so nice to receive a note from you. It would be like making a friend over flowers 🙂

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you for your email, Karen — I’m so touched to receive an email like this.

      I haven’t been blogging on Janet’s Notebook for a while due to other projects, but email like yours gives me a reason to come back soon.

      I checked your website, and it is such a unique and lovely site. I like its simplicity and it feels genuine. I believe whoever comes to you would feel the sense that it is more than flowers that you sell. I love your ‘love intensely……’ message. Very moving.

      I really love your add-on charms too — the laptop makes me laugh. I do some craft, and these charms can be used for paper crafting too.

      My family is in Singapore (my parents in their eighties now) and I go back to visit them whenever I could. I was very moved when I visited the columbarium with my mother last time — and I only realised how much my eldest brother has done for our family too.

      I would tell my family about your site. I think my mother got the flowers from Clementi market last time. I believe you have found a niche market and people will love the personal touch you add to your flowers.

      I would suggest that you add a story to your site — perhaps your own story — to express love and what you do.

      I think it is very brave of you to focus on one type of business. I agree that wedding and other events are more lucrative. I’m sure your focus will be rewarding. It is simply a great idea.

      Let’s stay in touch and I wish you all the best.


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