New developments come up ever so often in modern Singapore. It is always in a prime and central location, shiny and pretty while the land we portion for the dead is usually tucked away in the far corners of Singapore, inaccessible and usually hidden. There was once a time where cemeteries were scattered all over the island, coexisting side-by-side with the living. The law in Singapore states that the burial period for all graves would be limited to 15 years, meaning that once the time is up, grave plots will be exhumed or 'moved'. Still, some heritage cemeteries still remain – you might even be standing next to one while waiting for the bus.
More than 100,000 traditional Chinese graves, including the 600sqm grave of 19th-century business supremo Ong Sam Leong, are dotted among the trees in a beautiful 233ha rainforest. It’s not only the city’s largest cemetery but also one of its oldest, with the first grave dating back to 1833. Buried here are many Singaporeans whose names are literally part of the city today – names like Chew Boon Lay, Tan Kheam Hock and Chew Joo Chiat.
Blink and you might miss it. Located in the heart of the busy Bugis Precinct, Jalan Kubor Cemetery is the oldest Muslim cemetery in Singapore. It contains the graves of many prominent Malays and Muslims from the 19th and 20th centuries. The cemetery is made up of three sections: one plot reserved for Malay royalty, an adjoining site for Muslim burials that came under the care of the Aljunied family, and a third area originally designated for Indian Muslims that later became popular with Bugis and Banjar merchants.
Located in the middle of a residential neighbourhood in Siglap, the old Muslim cemetery Kubur Kassim has been a source of ghost stories and urban legends. With tombs dedicated to 'orang bunian' – a sort of supernatural human-like being – it's easy to see why these stories persist. Kubur Kassim is one of the oldest burial grounds in Singapore and was established way back in the 1920s on a piece of land in Siglap owned by a Muslim entrepreneur. The first thing you'll notice before entering the grounds is the striking yellow and green gates. The cemetery is the final resting place for many Muslims living in Siglap during the kampung days and other well-known community leaders.
The long MRT trip to Kranji affords plenty of time to contemplate the serried rows of public housing that represent one of the Singapore government’s greatest yet most perplexingly drab achievements. By contrast, the rows of 4,000 white gravestones at this peaceful hillside cemetery have a serene, if solemn beauty. Dominated by the huge, wing-like Singapore Memorial, and fronted by a Sir Edwin Lutyens-designed memorial stone, the site includes several monuments for servicemen massacred in the early days of the Japanese Occupation and one for those lying in ‘unmaintainable graves’ elsewhere in South-east Asia. The inscriptions tell countless tales of death and sacrifice, and you can easily spend an hour piecing together a picture of the British Empire in all its diversity. You can also find the tombs of the first two presidents of Singapore here.
Hidden in an estate in Hougang is the largest Japanese cemetery in Southeast Asia. The sprawling park contains nearly 1,000 graves of Japanese civilians in Singapore. Established in 1891 as a burial ground for Japanese women brought here for prostitution, other civilians during the pre-war days were also buried here. The memorial park also holds the ashes of Japanese soldiers, marines, airmen as well as war criminals who died or were executed here during the war.