Ancestral Tablets and Columbaria in Singapore: A Historical and Cultural Analysis

In the particular section, our main objective is to give the reader a conscious understanding of what these two items are and their various forms historically and culturally. It is the shared view of all 4 group members that to fully comprehend the significance of an object, one must first understand what the object is and its various forms. With that, we can then take a deeper look into the implications and importance of the object. An understanding of the different forms and how these items came about is also vital in validating the subsequent points made in other parts of this essay. Reading this will give the reader a head start to what we are about to discuss on the subsequent analysis of the significance of these objects to the Chinese in Singapore.

This is a historical and cultural analysis on ancestral tablets and columbaria in Singapore. According to Chuah, an ancestral tablet is a mortuary form of ritual tradition in many Southeast Asian societies. The tablet itself gained a variety of changes according to different backgrounds and cultures, but in a simple explanation, an ancestral tablet is a constructed symbol representing the very existence of an ancestor. Meanwhile, Percy-Smith and Howarth describe a columbarium as a “building (or part of a building) that accommodates niches for cinerary urns”. In relation to the Chinese’s cultural and religious practices, these urns contain the ashes of the deceased and is an alternative to the traditional methods of burial.

Definition of Ancestral Tablets

Ancestor worship is a major part of Chinese culture and it has been around for a long time. The Chinese believe that when a person dies, their spirits go to the afterlife. In the afterlife, the spirits of the dead are in much the same need as a living person. They are in need of food, shelter, and money. But how can these offerings be offered to the deceased? It is believed that the spirits of the dead have an effect on the fortunes of the living. It is because of this that if the person has descendants in good fortune, then he will have many good things in life. But if the person had descendants with bad fortune, then he would have a hard life. Because of this, in order to better the lives of their ancestors, the Chinese would offer sacrifices at home and lavish grand burial sites. These burial sites are equipped with everything the deceased person might need in the afterlife, and they usually have an above ground burial vault. This is the grand way of doing things, but for those who cannot afford this method of proper burial, how can they ensure that their ancestors are taken care of? One cost-effective way of ensuring that the spirits of the dead are not causing problems for the living is to build a spirit tablet. A spirit tablet is a type of altar that contains the name of a deceased person and may contain a few tools or offerings for said person. These tablets may be used in the home or stored in a temple, depending on what the family of the deceased can afford. Usually, wealthier families put the tablet in a temple. The main idea behind the tablet is to provide a place for the spirit of the deceased to come and receive offerings from the living. This will prevent the spirit from meddling in the lives of the living, and it can bring good fortune to the family. But what is the cost-effective method for the deceased that was not able to provide much in the way of offerings? A place with many others in a similar situation; this would be a columbarium.

Significance of Columbaria in Singapore

With families having to work and travel overseas for studies, there could be no one left to perform the yearly prayer and the Qing Ming festival. This has led to the consideration of hiring professional services for the prayer, but this can be an expensive monetary commitment in the long run. An alternative will be the transfer of ancestral tablets to the niche at a columbarium near their residence, making it easy for filial descendants and relatives to visit and pay respects to the ancestors and departed, during festive seasons and on normal days. This will lead to the greater cultural acceptance of niche storage as a better alternative to housing urns at home and eventually may also increase the significance of niche storage at a columbarium singapore. This will encourage more people to choose columbarium storage over home storage. As the awareness and acceptance of columbaria as a practical and culturally significant option for ancestral tablet storage grows, the demand for columbarium facilities in Singapore is expected to increase in the coming years.

With the recent SARS and Avian Flu epidemics, the government halted all burials in an effort to eradicate diseases from the ground and also partially to encourage cremation as a mode of disposing of the dead. This move has also greatly increased the significance of columbaria in Singapore, as niches become a more favorable choice to house the cremated remains of their loved ones. With more favorable niches and time-limited graves, people will also find it more convenient to relocate the remains of their ancestors to a niche at the columbarium. This is an easier solution compared to having to repatriate the remains from overseas, due to the limited time graves in land-scarce Singapore.

The commemoration of the dead is as much a part of the history of living men as an inspiration to future generations. With the shortage of land and limited space in Singapore, the significance of columbaria in Singapore has increased tremendously over the past decade. As land is scarce in Singapore, the plots at cemeteries to house the dead are not only limited in space but also time. This initiated the formation of the Committee for Columbarium, who were looking into long-term custom-designed niches for the people of Singapore. Subsequently, the government allowed the building of a niche complex at the columbarium plot at Choa Chu Kang cemetery, thereby increasing the significance of columbaria in Singapore. With land scarce, the government has also allocated another plot of land at Choa Chu Kang cemetery for the building of a bigger and better columbarium, also in the hope of meeting future demand for niches to house the dead.

A columbarium is a building made up of niches or recesses for the permanent placement of cremated remains. It is an urn storage vault which is more environmentally friendly compared to traditional methods, as it is able to save land space and is also more cost-effective because it does not require any maintenance, unlike in traditional methods where space cleaning or grass cutting are needed to maintain the place. At times, it can also be a part of a larger building or complex.

Historical Background

Ancestral worship has been a commonly practiced tradition in Chinese communities. This has been a custom since the earliest periods of Chinese history. It was believed that the spirits of family ancestors would bring good fortune and prosperity to the lives of their descendants. One of the ways in which the Chinese pay respects to their ancestors and commission protection upon their graves is the making of ancestral tablets. The practice of tablet worship has a long history dating back to the earliest dynastic China, where it was a prerogative of the ruler and his high ministers. However, it spread to the common people and from that time to the present, tablets have continued to be a central focus of ancestor worship. Tablet worship has continued and evolved within the Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and so too has the methods of grave and spirit veneration. With the urbanization in Singapore, Chinese graveyards have been repeatedly exhumed to make way for growing urban and infrastructure development. This led to a decrease in the traditional method of grave worship by the present generation of descendants and a loss of link to the national heritage. This eventually prompted the need to explore alternatives towards grave worship, preservation of links to cultural heritage, and provide a mode of national education into Chinese customs and traditions. This in turn has led to the creation of the Singapore Columbarium. A study of its founding, its social function, and the impact it has on Chinese society and culture offers valuable insight into the practice of tablet worship and its relevance to the Chinese Singaporeans today.

Origins of Ancestral Tablets

In order to better understand the significance and functions of the ancestral tablets in Singapore, it is essential to locate the origins of ancestral worship which originated from the leading three religious beliefs namely Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. According to Chinese tradition, throughout life, every individual is influenced by the values and teachings of these beliefs. Upon death, the elder sons or the most responsible family members will make an ancestral tablet. This indicates that the importance of carrying out ancestral rites is to ensure that the ancestors are as comfortable, i.e. Chinese tradition seeks to achieve prosperity and stability both in life and in death. The location and construction differ from culture to culture. In ancient China, at the time of the Xia and Shang dynasties (C21-C11 BC), sometimes a shaft was dug in the ground to represent ancestors, and later a chamber was constructed. The chamber contained a set of small doors through which access could be gained to the tablet representing the most recently deceased member of the family. In the Zhou and Han dynasties, the chamber was constructed of brick or stone and the chambers were elaborate. By the Tang dynasty, the construction of the ancestral tablets and chambers reached its peak and this tradition of constructing the tablets and chambers was continued by the Chinese migrants. The tablets and change of various designs were set in houses and grouped together in temple buildings. In contrast to the Chinese, the Peranakans hung their ancestors’ tablets making it into a scroll as an alternative to the Chinese custom. Evidently, the above illustrates that for the Chinese, having an ancestral chamber was vital whereas for the Peranakans it was not a requirement.

Evolution of Columbaria in Singapore

The earliest structures built to house columbaria urns appear to have been those constructed at Tampines Lorong 23 and Jurong, consisting simply of a row of niches. As land scarcity and urbanisation influenced funerary practices, these came to be seen as impractical to construct. In 1987, Singapore’s first crematorium-columbarium complex was built at Mount Vernon. Designed to alleviate the land scarcity and high construction costs in Singapore, the shift further represented a governmental desire to modernise the Chinese funeral industry and to promote cremation as the preferred mode of disposing the dead. This signalled a legislative move for the closure of traditional cemeteries in Singapore. Plans were drawn to develop Neptune Court into a high-rise columbarium complex and to build colossal public columbaria, exemplified by the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Columbarium completed in 2001. The former is to be developed in line with LTA’s Land Intensification programme, whilst the latter located in Bishan was intended to be a major cemetery to integrate various Chinese Buddhist organisations in Singapore. The most recent form of columbaria developments may be seen in the proposal to build a multi-storey freehold private columbarium building at the industrial premise of 22 Sin Ming Road. From the early simplicity of niches to elaborate modern complexes, the developments of columbaria in Singapore are heavily influenced by land scarcity, legislative intentions and commercialisation of funeral services. columbarium singapore These developments reflect the changing attitudes towards death and memorialization. They also highlight the ongoing efforts to adapt to the unique challenges and constraints faced by Singapore in managing its limited land resources.

Cultural Practices and Beliefs

This aspect of cultural continuity between past and future is what differentiates ancestor worship from other forms of religion and worship. The ancestor is believed to continue existing in an afterlife which should reflect in some way his existence when living. It is to this end that many tomb building and funeral practices are performed, as it is believed that a comfortable afterlife is dependent on the treatment of the deceased’s remains and the remembrance of his existence by future generations. Finally, ancestor worship is unique in that it is not generally an attempt to ask for divine favors or assistance. Rather it is attaining a connection between past and future generations and fulfilling the datong or ‘Great Concord’ where society was envisioned to be at its best. This was a time of peace and harmony where everyone fulfilled their duties, and it is thought that by fulfilling his duties to his ancestors, a man may in some way bring this about for his descendants.

Ancestral worship has been an important aspect of Chinese culture for many centuries, and therefore the practices and beliefs surrounding ancestral tablets and columbaria are manifestations of deeply rooted traditions. The underlying motivation for every element of ancestral worship is the Confucian principle of filial piety, or xiao. This principle asserts that it is a moral obligation for one to show reverence, respect and support to one’s parents and ancestors. From this principle stems the belief that ancestors who are venerated and cared for properly will in turn bring good fortune, prosperity and many descendants to the family, as the living are fulfilling their duty of xiao. This concept is vital in understanding the myriad customs associated with ancestral worship, as they are all generally aimed at fulfilling the familial duty to past generations.

Architecture and Design

A collective memory based around cultural traditional and socio-religious understandings of the power and authority of the family ancestor lead to a range of designs for both the ancestral tablet and the architecture which houses them. The nature of socio-religious beliefs and the designs of the tablets and buildings in which they are enshrined all reflect the intention of maintaining a symbolic link and relationship between living generations and their ancestors. This must be clearly differentiated from public memorial and commemorative traditions which are focused on remembering the dead as famous or heroic individuals who hold a place in the history of the nation or community, but who are not necessarily ancestral to those that currently live. In contrast to the public commemoration of such individuals, the maintenance of a proper relationship with the family ancestor is considered to be of fundamental importance to the prosperity and longevity of the family. Hence, the designs of ancestral tablets and the buildings which house them reflect a strong desire to maintain a lasting and meaningful presence of the ancestors within the living space of their descendants.

Late traditional format ancestral tablets are carved on thin, nearly square slabs of stone, with the front face of the tablet wider than the back. Early traditional format tablets, on the other hand, have inscriptions on the top surface of the tablet, usually in one to three rows with a square centre containing an inscription in larger seal script. Other design features include the circular ancestral islet with the cusped round tablets utilized in southern China, the earthen altar, and the simple inlaid stone tablet of the T’ung and Song period. Later, more elaborate forms include the incense burner ancestor memorial and the white marble rectangular tablet with inscription and a pouch for burning incense. Across all of these regional and temporal variations, the essential purpose of the ancestral tablet has always been to represent the sacrificial presence of the ancestor at a family ceremony, and therefore to merge the physical and spiritual realities of the individual into one object at a specific location.

Traditional Ancestral Tablet Designs

Tablets themselves take form in a number of materials such as wood, stone, and metal. Varying in shapes and sizes, the material chosen for the tablet often depends on the financial capability and preferences of the family. Wooden tablets are most commonly used because it is believed that the properties of the material resonate with the spirit of the deceased due to its origins from nature. Stone provides a longer-lasting alternative but is often more expensive. Materials like bronze and brass are more commonly used in the construction of tablets for niches in the walls of public or private columbaria. Step designs to make the tablet appear elevated in a structure resembling a home altar are also popular, believed to allow the spirit to receive the offerings at the correct elevation. This traditional belief in the home altar concept results in a design that emulates a roof or some form of overhanging element, believed to shield the spirit from bad luck in a similar fashion to the roof of a house.

The designing of genealogical headstones is much influenced by traditions. The traditional three-piece set, often found in many Chinese households, consists of a high table and a pair of stools. The commonly rectangular or oval table is used to enshrine the tablet, usually made of wood and paper, while the stools are used for crafts of incense and other offerings.

Modern Columbaria Architectural Trends

Most modern structures consist purely of niches with partition walls and plaques because it is the most space-efficient method of housing ashes. In an article by the Strait Times, it was noted that throughput was a design concern for the new multi-purpose Kong Meng San Columbarium, in which the new design will more than double the capacity of the old one from 40,000 niches to over 100,000, because land is increasingly hard to come by with the growing population of Singapore. Another consideration in throughput is easy access to niches for niche maintainers and families of the dead. In the case of the new Kong Meng San design, all the niches are housed in identical concrete cells in which a niche maintainer can reach any given niche with a specific ladder system similar to compact shelving, increasing the efficiency of niche maintenance.

Modern columbaria in Singapore are driven by land scarcity, forcing them to find new innovative ways to house the ashes of the dead with the least amount of land. With the introduction of reinforced concrete in the 1980s, reinforced concrete became and still is the building material of choice for modern columbaria, costing $75/m2 as opposed to granite at $400/m2. In the ever hot and humid weather of Singapore, granite structures are also prone to weathering due to leaching and/or salt crystallization, so concrete structures with granite facades provide a longer-lasting attractiveness. The Christian and Roman Catholic communities in Singapore lean towards using niches which imitate the style of ossuaries and crypts due to the historical purpose of interment in walls.

Symbolism in Design Elements

It is evident that there is much symbolism derived from religion and tradition in the design of ancestral tablets. Keeping in mind that Taoism and Buddhism are the main religions in Singapore. Taoist pyramid-shaped tombstones contain carvings of deities, which serve to protect the spirit of the deceased and ward off evil spirits. It is also an emblem to remind of the Taoist teachings and help to bring the descendants onto the same religious path. It is believed that by doing so, it will effectively ensure that the successive generations undertake the yearly spring cleaning, grave visits, paying of respects, and other practices concerning filial piety. Steps are also taken to provide inscription services for non-Taoist graves. This is also to preserve the cultural heritage and to provide one-stop all religion service for the happiness of all descendants. As for Buddhist tombstones, they are similar to the modern-day niches as they contain inscriptions of the deceased but are in tablet form and are placed on pedestal tables.

The carving and shaping of stone of any kind is a skillful art. In the carving of tombstones for the ancestral tablets or inscriptions within the columbaria, design elements play an important role to represent the meaning and purpose of the structures. Symbolism in design involves using an aspect of the culture from which it was conceptualized to represent an idea or meaning. Symbolism can be derived from nature. This is evident in the Chinese culture in the association of certain animals or plants with human traits. Another common symbol is in the Chinese zodiac. Various animals are used to represent a person’s character and fortune according to the year, month, day and time of birth. Other common sources of symbolism include religion, tradition, stories, historical figures, and legends.

Preservation and Conservation

As stated in chapter 2, ancestral tablets were no longer made of perishable material once the immigrants shifted to Singapore. Those families whose forefathers made the move from China to South East Asia would have seen this as an attempt to ensure that the tradition does not die out. Previous mentions of ancestral tablets were usually made of paper or wood, materials that have a lesser lifespan, have been rarely documented in the past and similarly, are rare today. Stone ancestral tablets are abundant in Chinese graves, more is mentioned in chapter 3.3 regarding graves. The Peranakan Chinese did not carve traditional stone ancestral tablets for late family members; instead they innovated with a 20th-century version, bronze plaques for insertion into specially made niche. An example can be seen below. Evidently, it is a more enduring material in comparison to stone but may be subject to damage or theft. With regards to maintenance, repairable tablets have the highest chance in preservation and conservation. Unfortunately, the older and more valuable stone ancestral tablets will pose to be a problem for restoration. An example would be the various raids of World War II occupation where the Japanese Army would loot the graves for valuable materials. This, however, can be briefly touched upon in chapter 4.3 concerning legal issues.

Maintenance of Ancestral Tablets

Although tablets removed are now more effectively managed and preserved, preventive measures should still be taken to ensure that tablets in their original settings are not left to ruin.

In the case of government acquisition of land for development, tablets from affected graves and niches will be removed and transferred to columbaria or other alternative sites. This happened with the building of the new Singapore General Hospital and the Sepoy Lines Military Cemetery in 1976. A joint effort by the National Archives of Singapore, the Chinese clans and other stakeholders has seen the retrieval and safekeeping of these tablets in a special air-conditioned storage facility at the National Archives of Singapore.

Tablets not maintained are usually considered as ‘orphaned’ and face a possibility of destruction by the cemetery management. Due to land scarcity, the rights to perpetuity for graves and niches are not always guaranteed. While it is recorded that the remains are often exhumed and cremated, little is known about what happens to the tablets. With such a situation, it is not uncommon for tablets to perish in neglect.

However, the hectic fast-paced lifestyle of modern Singaporeans is resulting in a decline of regular maintenance. With each passing generation in Singapore, there is a weakening link with cultural rituals. This is further compounded if the descendants of the tablet owners have emigrated or are intending to emigrate from Singapore in the near future. This situation is particularly critical as globalization and modernization threaten the erosion and extinction of cultural practices.

The act of maintaining a tablet in a family altar has an important symbolic significance. As opposed to the neglect of a tablet which signifies the failure of filial piety, the act of maintaining a tablet signifies continuing remembrance and respect for the deceased. This will ensure that the past can be recorded, learnt and experienced by future generations.

Maintenance of ancestral tablets involves the care and consideration for the physical well-being of the tablets. It is generally associated with the act of cleaning and caring for, but in Singapore it also involves restoration and conservation work which is a step forward from maintenance, safeguarding the future of the tablets. Maintenance is usually carried out by family members.

Conservation Efforts for Columbaria in Singapore

Very little conservation work has been done for the Chinese cemeteries in Singapore as compared to the maintenance work done for ancestral tablets. The largest and most successful initiative must be the government’s decision to acquire the Bukit Brown area after the Land Acquisition Act was passed in 1966, and again in 2011. Although both attempts were met with intense resistance by various heritage and environmental groups, the government was successful in exhuming a portion of the graves in 1973 and developing the Upper Thomson Road and Lornie Road areas. Work is still ongoing for the 2nd attempt that began in 2013. A $1.5 billion, 4-lane dual carriageway project linking the existing East Coast Parkway to the Pan Island Expressway has been proposed, cutting through the middle of Bukit Brown. This will wipe out a significant portion of the cemetery with an estimated 50,000 graves being exhumed. The areas that will be affected are Blocks 1, 3, 4 and 6 which are found in the vicinity of Kheam Hock and Bukit Brown Roads and Blocks 2, 5 and 7 near the proposed road and after Tyersall Avenue. This initiative has highly been contested with many debates and discussions between the government and various stakeholders concerning the importance of the historical and ecological heritage that exists in Bukit Brown.

Legal and Ethical Considerations

The rules on maintaining the enshrinement areas will be dependent on the type of housing. Those which come under private housing will have the responsibility of maintaining the areas to the individual owners. Areas under the HDB will have the rules and regulations applied in the HDB council estates. SOC will have to obtain the information to the last group of areas. Whether it means to maintain the areas, the type of maintenance or non-maintenance is still uncertain. In preventive policies which relate before loss or damage to the enshrinement, it is assumed there should be some sort of preventive measures which safeguard the enshrinements. Actions such as the disassembly of the enshrinement areas or changing the designs to other types of structures are not advisable. If there is good enough necessity, some other method of equivalent enshrinement preservation may be applicable. Measures of prevention to loss or damage may be in the form of funds allowed for the respective communities to reconstruct the enshrinements in a case of loss or damage due to natural disasters or renovation of site usage. Due to the loss of site usage of certain enshrinements, they may be stored the memorial tablets in a columbarium. With this assumption, there must be some flexibility in the laws to allow transferring of the tablets to place in an open air enshrinement to a new enshrinement area in the form of a columbarium. Open air enshrinement tablets will have a maximum longevity of one hundred years. With the scarcity of land in Singapore, it will undoubtedly take enshrinement area loss or damage to the tablets to the form of a columbarium. Step by step revisions or annulments of these policies may be necessary with changes to the times or social changes. It is hoped that the final measures adopted will ensure an equal preservation from the enshrinement areas to the present and future generations.

Preservation and Conservation Maintenance of Ancestral Tablets Conservation Efforts for Columbaria in Singapore Legal and Ethical Considerations

Latest Posts