BusinessColumbarium in Singapore

Columbarium in Singapore

Columbariums are a place for the respectful and usually public storage of cinerary urns (i.e. urns holding a deceased’s cremated remains). The term comes from the Latin columba (dove) and originally referred to compartmentalized housing for doves and pigeons, but its use referring to a place of interment dates to the 2nd century. It is believed the first columbaria were built in and around Rome during the time of the Roman Empire. Today, some columbaria are essentially indoor, climate-controlled buildings, often owned by a church, and they may also be in mausolea or in freestanding structures located in a cemetery.
Columbaria are closely related to cremation. Traditional burial is still the most popular form of laying a body to rest, but it’s becoming increasingly common for burial plots to be expensive or hard to find. People in cities and churchgoers are an obvious fit, and providing tasteful interment for cremated remains inside a structure is often more practical and economical than dedicating a small plot of land to a memorial garden. This is particularly true in modern-day Japan where space is at a premium and there are more than 600,000 family-owned small grave sites called haka. In the Catholic Church, a particular church often has limited land available for an adjoining cemetery, and so columbaria can be a more practical choice.

What is a columbarium?

A columbarium is a building specially constructed to store funeral urns containing a deceased’s ashes. The word can also refer to a room within a church (or a cabinet within a church) set aside for this purpose. The world is taken from the Latin word columba, which means dove, as the original columbaria were thought to resemble dovecotes.
The Faithful Departed: The Origins and the Development of the Cult of the Dead, a book on the history of the cult of the dead and the development of Catholic cemeteries in the United States, helpfully defines a columbarium and explains its Roman origins: “The word columbarium comes from the Latin and means dwelling place of doves. It was used to describe underground niches in caementari (built) tombs, above-ground structures to house urns in the walls, or to designate a building specifically designed for the purpose of providing niches to receive cinerary urns. Step by step, our modern concepts of cemetery and cremation burial are coming to resemble the ancient practices – the modern cemetery to the Roman necropolis, and cremation burials to the use of cinerary urns and columbaria. Still, the idea behind cremation has swung back and forth between a search for a less violent and torching rite for the body and as an economic method of disposing of the dead. Heated debates over the Catholicity of the practice and its fitness for being included among the Church’s liturgical norms show that the pendulum is still swinging today”.

Importance of columbariums in Singapore

Columbarium niches in Singapore are a critical part of the city-state’s master plan to handle the dead. As land is scarce in Singapore, construction of columbariums allows for the dead to be remembered in a more affordable and environmentally friendly way. With that, they free up land space in comparison to building more cemeteries which fulfills a greater social responsibility. Many fail to understand that the disposing of ashes from cremation is an environmental hazard. If scattered in gardens or at sea, human ashes must be removed in time to come to make space for future generations. This is often a forgotten task, and a Singapore Environment Council stated that it had received complaints about the scattering of human ashes in public parks. By placing the ashes in a niche in a columbarium, this eliminates the problem of relocating the ashes and this will also prevent future generations from having to come into contact with human bone fragments. Scattering at sea is not an ideal solution either, as this will eventually pollute the seas in a severe manner. Estimations stand at 20,000 urns being held in niche walls in the year 2014, and this, in comparison to the 150,000 that the government is attempting to build space for shows that this is an effective, preferred solution for handling the deceased’s remains.

Types of Columbariums in Singapore

Public columbariums

Public niches are managed by the government. Currently, the only located public niche is the Choa Chu Kang columbarium. The niches are built in block-like structures. The niches are often 12 compartments in a columbarium wall. Each compartment is used to contain a set of ashes from a dead person. The niche is sealed by a niche plaque with the person’s information and date of death. The niche plaque can be of different materials depending on the price. Usually, cement for the cheapest option, followed by marble and granite. Glass niches are rarely seen as it is harder to maintain. Step into any of these places, and one is usually greeted by sombre tones and a quiet atmosphere, as it is usually quite empty. This however, does not impede visitors from coming to pay respects, especially during the Qing Ming festival, on All Souls’ Day or during the anniversary of the death.
Ashes are usually stored for a period of 15 years. After which, the niche owner has to make a decision to either, scatter the ashes at sea which is free by the secular government standard or to keep the ashes to be stored at the government managed columbarium which is of similar concept to public ones, just that it is centralized at Mandai. After the 15 year lease has expired, the niche is to be reused to contain another new set of ashes and the plaque will be removed. Family members who still prefer to keep the plaque after the 15 years, can opt to display the niche plaque at home, or simply keep it at the office which is applicable to other forms of niches as well. This need for a final resting place for ashes has caused a shortage of niche space in recent years, which resulted in the expansion of niche options to private and religious niches, with varying concepts.

Private columbariums

In terms of management, private columbariums are normally in a better state compared to public ones as operators of private columbariums are not required to bid for a specific piece of land to develop a columbarium, thus reducing unhealthy competitions between operators and unsightly rows of niche pods at public columbariums. Hence, the operators of private columbarium can develop their land in a more delicate and natural manner and often leave it to themselves to niche out specific areas of the land for future expansion of the columbarium. With this, they are able to maintain the premises and have control over the landscape conditions and the quality of the building of the columbarium, which affects the families of the deceased when considering to house their loved ones at a niche there. At this point, it is also said that the charges for a niche unit at a private columbarium are more expensive compared to units at public columbariums, but given a better environment and experience, many locals are willing to pay the price.

The number of private columbariums has increased over the years as more people are being more receptive to columbariums compared to traditional burial. This demand has shifted from public columbariums to newer alternatives in private columbariums. A private columbarium is often located away from the city area and is quiet and serene, fitting into the ambiance of a park. Usually, a part of the private columbarium is also often linked to the indoor columbarium where family members of the deceased are able to purchase niche units for the storage of cinerary urns.

Religious columbariums

Theravada Buddhists are believed to be pioneers in religious columbariums in the public sector, with the completion of the first public religious columbarium in 2005. With limited space for burial and cremation by 2030, there is a high possibility that more religious groups will turn to building a columbarium. In the earlier case of stopping the lease on burial grounds, the Hindu Endowment Board was required to retrieve the 99-year lease on burial land in Choa Chu Kang and the leasehold cremation land at Mount Vernon. Failure to retrieve land for cremation will result in a shortage of storage for ash urns, and this may lead to private or community building of a columbarium for the specific religion. A Hindu columbarium is already in progress, with the Hindu Endowment Board securing sites for the future co-location of a temple, crematorium, and columbarium at Mandai in 2018. In the case of private, community, and any other religious building of a columbarium, it should be referred to and follow the Theravada Buddhist example of a public religious columbarium mentioned earlier in the paragraph. The best practice is to go for a public religious columbarium to serve the needs of the community and future generations to come.

Part of the redevelopment plan initiated by the Urban Redevelopment Authority involves retrieving leasehold land to create more space in the city, creating a shortage of burial grounds in Singapore. Traditional burial grounds are affected by a new policy disallowing more burials on land, and their leases are being terminated earlier. To cope with the problem, the government has encouraged the construction of multi-storey underground burials, thinking that it is more cost-effective than using land for burial purposes. This has led many religious groups to explore the possibility of building a columbarium to store the ashes of their deceased.

Services Offered by Singapore Columbariums

The selection of the final resting place or niche is a time when family members can show that they have provided the respect and dignity that their loved ones deserve. It is also a physical site that will symbolize and memorialize the life of the deceased for generations to come. The act of personalizing a niche and leaving a mark on it is a form of therapy that assists in moving on from a loss. It helps to ensure that the memories last forever and the lives of our loved ones are immortalized. The availability of different niche options and additional niche customization services is an important factor that distinguishes between the various types of columbarium in Singapore and also the services provided by the different columbarium operators.
The selection of niches can vary depending on the location within the columbarium and can be likened to the purchase of a “plot of land.” Prices for niche selection can start from a few hundred dollars and can reach tens of thousands of dollars for a single niche, depending on the reputation and location of the columbarium. An example would be the Singapore government-run Choa Chu Kang Columbarium, which is located on the highest piece of land in the area, overlooking the entire Choa Chu Kang Cemetery. As the land provides an unobstructed panoramic view, as well as being higher in Feng Shui, the prices for niches in this location are tagged at a higher price. Standard niches are constructed with marble, granite, or bronze with engravings of the deceased’s name and date of birth/death. The sizing and cost of standard niches can vary between the different columbariums in Singapore. The availability of niche personalization and customization services, including those from a Do It Yourself (DIY) basis, allows for the construction of niches of varying designs and sizes made from different materials. These can range from simple engraved plaques to more intricate designs with encasements of glass and even more elaborate constructions with miniature altars. These services can allow for a niche to be specific to a loved one’s character and interests, with a unique and personalized design that can be left as a family heirloom for generations to come.

Niche selection and customization

This is generally the first step to any columbarium. A niche is akin to a burial plot and is a personal choice of the deceased or the family members or better still a spiritual family. This is where the urn is placed and has significant bearing on how future anniversary dates, Qing Ming or festive seasons will be spent. Some may prefer a niche close to a door as long walks can be tedious whereas others may opt for higher level niches as they intend to visit once a year and for a shorter period. Prices of niches vary between each columbarium, for government run columbariums niches start from $1200 whereas private columbarium can go up to $5000. Typical lease is about 15 years and we must consider that once the lease is up, the niche will have to be moved to a new location if the columbariums lease has also finished. Lease extensions usually cost a little more and a new niche at a new location will have fees similar to that of the first lease. In Buddhism it may be common consideration to purchase multiple niches at one time to cater for future generations and current family members.
Customization of the niche and area around it is possible and may vary depending on columbarium. Simple options such as changing the colour of niche plaques and actually constructing venues for praying are possible. These prayer venues are open to other people and other niches and urns may be moved if family members agree, to accommodate praying events for the recent deceased or on significant dates for past ancestors. Smaller prayer venues or specific urn housing has the option of being covered with glass to prevent debris falling from the top tiered niches. An extreme example of customization would be the building of 2 to 3 niche sized mini temples which can be rather costly. However check with your columbarium if such structures are permissible and ensure that they are well maintained and are safe areas to be in.

Funeral services and arrangements

The available funeral services include wake services at one of the six elegant air-conditioned wake halls which are equipped with facilities for the disabled. The beauty of the entire columbarium can be enjoyed through the glass panels of the halls and it is possible to hold a garden wake for the nature lovers at the Mandai Columbarium. After choosing the desired location for the wake, families may opt to carry out a religious funeral at the on-site chapels. Buddhist, Taoist, Christian and Catholic rites can be held in the multi-purpose halls with convenient after-service arrangements for the retrieval of the urns. In planning the funeral, services for the undertakers are available for those who have made pre-arrangements as well as those who need last minute services. This wide array of services ensures that the funeral needs of all families are met and this memorable occasion is carried out in a dignified manner.

Regardless of tradition or religion, death is a painful process and family and friends of the deceased may find it very difficult to cope with the loss of a loved one. With this in mind, Singapore Columbariums aims to provide a complete funeral experience for the bereaved to bid farewell to the deceased. The wide variety of funeral services and arrangements allow the family to memorialize their loved one in a unique and personal way.

Aftercare services and maintenance

Green columbariums may involve a garden landscape with burial plots for biodegradable urns and ossuaries, especially planting areas for ash scattering and sometimes on-site gardens for devotees to volunteer in maintaining. Maintenance of the columbarium is not only in caring for the landscape and grounds but also regular inspection, cleaning, and possible repair of niche structures. A well-structured maintenance plan is vital for the preservation of the commissioning authority and niche holders to ensure that they are getting what they’ve paid for. Failure of which may result in a lease of public columbarium being revoked and exhumation of all niches at niche holders’ cost.

Detailing the nuts and bolts of aftercare and maintenance is a significant issue for many devotees. A well-designed and low-priced aftercare package is the key persuading factor in choosing cremation and cinerary niche or columbarium over definitive inhumation. After cremation, family members may linger over the decision of scattering the ashes as they may be confused as to what to do with it. Hence, an efficient aftercare package that includes prompt collection and storage of the ashes into a prearranged cinerary niche is what they would be looking out for. Singapore’s mandate on keeping a good and green environment had led to the development of eco-friendly or ‘green’ columbarium. This serves as an alternative choice to traditional memorial parks and an option for those who wish to keep a space in memory of their departed loved ones.

Additional facilities and amenities

In recent years, the Singaporean government has begun to emphasise the importance of ‘ageing in place’. Ageing in place refers to the ability for senior citizens to live out their remaining years in the comfort of their own home, as opposed to moving into nursing homes or the like. The construction of a new generation of high-quality public columbariums is in line with this policy. With the niche to be a ‘house for a loved one who has passed on’, the concept of a niche and the columbarium facility is closely related to the idea of ‘ageing in place’. Currently, seniors who are living in HDB flats and have lost their loved ones may find it difficult to visit a niche located far away from their home. By having new columbariums that are adjacent to HDB estates, this will provide the convenience and proximity for seniors to visit their loved ones. Another aim of this age-friendly locator is to encourage family bonding across generations. An extended family may consist of a couple in their 60s, their children in their 30s-40s, and their grandchildren. The concept of age-friendly columbariums allows future generations of the family to visit their ancestors in a single location. This would make it easier for the elderly to teach their children about their heritage and ancestors, as well as to strengthen family bonds. Currently, niches in private columbariums cost between $3,000 to $15,000 and above, making it unaffordable for the average Singaporean to house their loved ones. High-quality yet affordable niches in public columbariums would give more Singaporeans the option of a safe and accessible place for their loved ones at a village-level price.

Choosing a Columbarium in Singapore

Pricing aside, different columbariums offer different services, with some providing unique cultural and religious amenities. The Tse Toh Aum Temple Columbarium, as it is operated by a Taoist temple, has priests on standby on the 1st and 15th of every lunar month to conduct rituals and ceremonies. Such rites are said to help ease the deceased’s journey to the afterlife, and provide blessings to the living. On the same note, the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery runs a “dedication of merits” programme. This involves chanting for the well-being of the deceased, and accumulation of the merits from these activities to dedicate to the deceased, for the purpose of a favourable rebirth. Such religious programmes are not found in secular columbariums. Finally, the niche purchaser should consider the demographics and lifestyle of the future residents of the surrounding niches. As Singapore is a multicultural society, there are people who would prefer to be around those of a similar race or religion, or even from the same kampung in the past. This may make it easier for future visits to the columbarium.

Secondly, pricing and packages differ greatly between columbariums, even those operated by the same organisation. While it is generally known that private columbariums have higher costs, the differences are still significant. At the high-end range of prices, a niche at the Thekchen Choling columbarium costs $4,288 to $6,888 for laypersons, and $7,068 to $10,628 for non-monks or nuns. An elaborate ceremony such as the one described in Chapter 3 using the Taoist package at the government-run Tse Toh Aum Temple Columbarium costs $7,000. On the other hand, a niche at the secular government-run Mandai Columbarium costs $1,300 to $2,000.

First and foremost, the most practical concern when choosing a columbarium is its location and accessibility. Due to the nature of columbariums, with family members visiting on occasions like Qing Ming or the deceased’s birthday, it is best to choose one that is easily accessible. Consideration should be given to the distance between the niches and the entrance, as some columbariums have obscure niches located in basements or dilapidated buildings. The environment external to the columbarium may also be of importance – some may prefer one with a tranquil environment such as the one at Mandai, away from the bustle of traffic or human activity. On the other hand, one may desire a more accessible location in order to facilitate family visits. Cost or your niche is also a factor for this point – some may have purchased a niche at the government-run columbarium only to find that it was located in a less accessible area of Singapore.

Location and accessibility

One of the most important factors in choosing a columbarium in Singapore is the location and accessibility. It is suggested to find a columbarium that is easily accessible. We would want to avoid visiting a columbarium that is hard to locate or situated in a remote area. An easily accessible columbarium, for instance, the ones located at the heartlands, is good for the elderly visiting. It is also helpful to find a columbarium with ample parking if the family intends to drive. Currently, there are more than 20 columbariums all over Singapore. It should not be an issue finding a columbarium within a few kilometers radius from your house. In recent years, several private columbariums have been set up to meet the demand from the population. These private columbariums usually have more elaborate designs and offer a higher standard of service compared to the government-managed ones, and hence charge a higher price too. Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist families should also take into account the environment and surroundings of the columbarium. Some may prefer a tranquil and serene environment, whereas others may be looking for a more lively atmosphere. Once you have decided on the type of environment suitable, you can then shortlist a few columbariums in the preferred area.

Pricing and packages

The niche products in question would be in the form of an altar memorial which may be located at a Buddhist or Taoist columbarium. It was found that such niche products are priced quite high as the price range for such products is from $5,000 to $12,000. An example would be from the Nirvana Memorial Garden where the price for an altar memorial niche would range from $5,888 to $8,888. Another example would be from the Tathāgata Meditation Centre Columbarium where the average price for an altar memorial niche is about $7,000. This may be rather costly for some consumers since the additional costs for niche installation, religious rites, and a niche leasing agreement fee are paid separately. Even though the prices may be slightly high, these packages are regarded as value for money as there are various payment schemes such as installment plans which make it easier for the consumers.

Upon researching for the availability of columbariums in Singapore, it was found that there are about four established companies that offer such services. There are mainly three government-run columbariums: Choa Chu Kang Columbarium, Mandai Columbarium, and Yishun Columbarium. The rest are run by private organizations. In this section, we are going to primarily focus on packages and pricing for a niche product offered by an altar memorial niche company.

Reputation and reviews

Tli Consulting (2006) implied that price and preferences are relative to each family, depending on their culture, social or economic background, thus having different views on what is best for the deceased family member. Besides that, TLI consulting also stated that practicality is a large factor when choosing a niche for ashes and placement of the niche is also a consideration. Many testimonials by locals have been published both online and in the newspapers, all of which have similar themes; that the niche and ceremony gives a lasting good impression for family and friends. One of the testimonials from a Bt Batok resident Mrs Lam, her family had a ceremony at Yishun Columbarium. She said “It was a positive experience, praying inside the temple before leading the casket to the niche”.
For the Chinese family, they found the cultural practice similar to the ones in Taiwan and Hong Kong. She also mentioned the ample parking space for family and friends, and sheltered walkway. Pricing and packaging was mentioned by Mr Patiath, saying that the money is worth the services and it is not extravagant. He also mentioned that compared to other religious places, this was the best money exchange for good services. An Indian family who placed their relative at Mandai said that the environment and area was suitable and serene. They also found that there was a temple nearby which was an added bonus for that visit. A European Langstroth said “It provided an adequate and convenient location at a reasonable price”.

Cultural and religious considerations

One of the most important considerations will be religion. Whether the religion has expressly prohibited or encouraged cremation, for example, Buddhism, Christianity, and Catholicism encourage cremation as a means to returning the body to the elements, whereas Hinduism and Islam prohibit it. Between the various denominations, there might also be different teachings and beliefs. For instance, Theravada Buddhists would prefer a simple and modest way of keeping the cremains, whereas Chinese Mahayana Buddhism would consider it a great filial piety to store them in a grand and elaborate setting. Another example would be Christianity. Protestants would believe and prefer a simpler way of keeping the urn in a niche with a small plaque, whereas Catholics prefer a more elaborate setting where the urn is placed beneath a ground burial plot or within a church.

Decision to store one’s relative in a columbarium involves a complex mixture of appreciation, religious belief, and other cultural expectations. So it is best to step back and brainstorm his/her value system, religion, and expectations.

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