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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Singapore's Cemeteries in Tight Space

Jul. 12, 2016

Singapore is taking a practical approach to managing its cemeteries within its limited space.

The island of Singapore is one of the world’s few city states. Around 5 and a half million people from many ethnic backgrounds live there.

The efficient use of its land has always been the biggest challenge in developing the economy. Even the dead can't escape this reality.

So Singapore has to take a practical approach to managing its cemeteries.

The year after independence in 1965, the government passed a law allowing public projects to use any land necessary. That included cemeteries.

A luxury shopping mall stands where a graveyard used to be. One residential neighborhood was once a cemetery. Many were destroyed to make way for the infrastructure that came with Singapore's rapid economic growth. There used to be over 200 cemeteries there. Now it's down to 60.

About 70% of the population is of Chinese descent, with their own burial customs.

But now burials are only permitted in the state-run Choa Chu Kang Cemetery. In 1998, the government put a limit on how long bodies could remain buried. After 15 years they either need to be moved to a smaller plot or cremated and stored in what's called a columbarium.

It's a serious problem for Muslims, who account for roughly 15% of the population. Their religion requires burial but they still have to follow the exhumation law.

Muslim graves are traditionally only for one person, but one Muslim family had to exhume their relative's remains and bury just parts of them in a plot with 7 others.

"We feel, you know, we disturb the dead," a member of the family says. "The government wants us to do that, so we have no choice."

But more and more citizens are choosing cremation.

Lee Ching Ming leads his family’s Buddhist service. Lee's father died 4 days ago. His grandparents were both buried. But when his mother passed away 10 years ago, she --like his father -- was cremated.

The ashes will be kept at a Buddhist temple’s columbarium.

"My parents thought it a peaceful place. So they chose this place for their final staying," Lee says.

An ultra-luxurious facility has been built as people move away from cemeteries. One columbarium is constantly crowded with visitors. It has 20,000 spaces. Customers have 10 types to choose from.

"It’s so beautiful. I feel totally relaxed and not afraid of death," says one customer.

One room is called "The Emperor." The most expensive location costs nearly $50,000.

"Actually a lot of people, they can't afford a condo when they are alive. But after so many years of efforts working hard, they will go for a better future for themselves. So this is the condo, a super condo for them," says a salesperson there.

Bukit Brown cemetery is about 5 kilometers from the city center. A new arterial road will run right through the cemetery. The government moved 4,000 graves for the construction.

It's 5 a.m., and Neo Cheng Hoe and his family have come to exhume his parents. According to Chinese beliefs, the souls of the dead fear sunlight so the exhumation must be done before dawn.

The father’s grave is right next to the road work. They want him to be in a quieter place even though they weren't asked to move. They've already taken the headstone. The gravedigger searches for the remains.

The father’s remains are placed next to the mother’s possessions.

Around 100,000 people were laid to rest in the Bukit Brown cemetery from the early 1800s to the 1970s. It's become hard to know who's buried where.

Raymond Goh has been researching the plots. He's already helped 50 families find their relatives.

"This place has so much history and heritage but when the government announced the road at that time, nothing was known of this cemetery," Goh says.

His work and the road project have created a flood of attention for the all-but-forgotten cemetery. There are free guided tours on the weekends, and they've become quite popular.

"In the 1970s, the Singaporean government tore down many beautiful old buildings because they said they were dirty and had no value. They took down many buildings and built new buildings. But now 30 years later, Singapore's government has regrets. They know they were wrong. Hopefully they will not make the same mistake with Bukit Brown," says one woman taking a tour of the cemetery.

Many people now say the cemetery should be preserved. The government will be faced with making important decisions about how to handle both preservation and development.