What we have lost in Singapore

Someone (I think it was a professor) once said that you can learn a lot about a society just from how it treats the dead, and the activities that revolve around it.

The other day, I was talking to a friend about cremation and burial in Singapore. He was lamenting about how mechanical the whole cremation process was. If you’ve never been to Mandai Crematorium, allow me to explain: Just before the cremation begins, family and friends are ushered into a viewing gallery where there are three tracks below (viewed through a glass). Each track leads to a furnace entrance. The coffin is loaded on a track and a machine pushes it slowly into the furnace. As the coffin comes closer to the furnace, the doors will automatically open to reveal the fire inside. This is probably the saddest moment. And before you can say anything more, the door automatically closes once the coffin is completely inside, leaving you with insufficient time to digest the reality that the person you once knew and loved is gone.

It’s too mechanical. The element of the human touch is completely missing. And it’s not just the cremation itself that’s too coldly mechanical. The whole process itself is too mechanical! It’s been designed for efficiency. When you arrive at Mandai Crematorium, you are greeted with an interior that looks a lot like Changi Airport Terminal 3, with a huge LED sign board to tell you which “Departure” hall to go to. People will usher you to the “Departure” hall where you say your last good-byes, and then you’re ushered out of the hall, through a corridor, into another hall – the viewing gallery to watch the cremation. And before you can even finish mourning, you are ushered out of the viewing gallery into the bus waiting area where there are benches and packet drinks laid out. By then, the bus is already waiting just in front of the entrances ready to send you back.

It is, by far, the most efficient process that I’ve ever seen. I mean, the way the building has been designed enables many cremations to take place one after another in quick succession, while avoiding over-crowding at the same time. But, in the words of my friend, “It’s too mechanical!”

Gosh… We’re talking about loved ones! Sure, there are many bodies waiting to be cremated, but I think our society’s emphasis on efficiency has made us forget just how important the process is. It’s times like this where the human element is so sorely lacking. I’m not just talking about having loved ones to support you during such moments. It’s also about the way the final process is carried out – so as to give people the time and space to really make sense and digest what’s going on.

This problem isn’t just isolated to cremation. The same problem can be found in burials. Once again, the process of efficiency overrides everything else. The cemeteries in Choa Chu Kang have been designed such that it’s very easy to bury and exhume bodies in a matter of minutes because burials are not the final resting place here in Singapore. The burial plot is leased for 20 years. After 20 years, the body is exhumed so that the next body can be buried inside.

I was quite horrified when I attended the burial of a friend. I always expected burials in Singapore to be like what you see on TV – after the coffin is lowered into the ground, family members and/or friends contribute by throwing some soil onto the coffin, and later, a group of people with shovels will finish up the burial. No, this is not what they do here in Singapore. Rather, once the coffin has been lowered, either a bulldozer or an excavator loaded with soil will just come up to the site and immediately fill it up. Once that’s done, two construction workers with shovels will just come to do up the finishing touches. Oh gosh! That’s a bit too fast! Efficient, yes. But… Sigh… I don’t know… It’s a bit too cold and lacking in humanity, if you ask me.

It’s scary how our society values efficiency and progress so highly at the expense of so many other “inefficient” things, to the extent that even death is handled so efficiently.

I think we’ve become very goal oriented that we tend to forget that the process itself matters just as much as the very goal. These days, we rarely bother about just how cold, mechanical, and even inhumane many of these processes are because technology has allowed these processes to occur very very quickly. At a click or a touch of a button, the process is completed almost instantly, and our goal is achieved.

Perhaps, our society has been so influenced by the ease of technology, that we have begun to (sub-consciously) treat cremation/burial as nothing more than mere tasks to be completed. Perhaps we have forgotten the purpose of such processes: that the process itself is a means of showing love and respect for our dearly departed, and at the same time, a means for us to mourn and support one another, whilst coming to terms with the loss as we find our way in this new life of ours without that person in our lives. Perhaps we have forgotten that the process is a means for us to acquire healing from the scars of the past, forgiveness, and even a new hope. There is so much richness even in death. But for us to really appreciate this richness and to make sense of the change, we need time – not cold, mechanised, efficiency. And it is in these moments of time that the human element of such a process begins to blossom like a lily.

But our quest for efficiency kills all of these things.

Perhaps that’s one of the greatest things we have lost here in Singapore.