May 17, 2009
Excursion to an exhumation
A uniquely Singapore moment brings back old memories and offers a 'reunion' with loved ones
By Zuraidah Ibrahim
'But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!'
'Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, 'Nay, we are seven!'
William Wordsworth, We Are Seven
I was at a cemetery watching clumps of earth fly out from the ground when these lines floated back into memory. It is about a girl who plays by the graves of her departed siblings, seeing no separation between the living and the dead.
That morning, I understood the poem. We were on this uniquely Singapore excursion to an exhumation. The visit to Choa Chu Kang reacquainted us with family members long gone, confronting us with the physical detritus of their mortal lives.
It also took me back to my experiences of loss. When I was barely four, a wave of sadness swept through my household one day. I recall seeing people, including my father, carrying something covered in a green and white batik out of the house. Then my memory goes blank. I was later to learn that a younger brother had died. He was a baby. My mother still has the green-and-white sarong in her cupboard.
The next time death visited, I was 12. My father went to bed and never woke up. His passing at 51 must have been an awful shock for my mother and older siblings who could comprehend the loss immediately.
To us younger ones, the impact of wrenching loss was to unfold in small and big ways throughout our lives. But so was his contribution to our character. The evening before he died, he gave me 50 cents as a reward for getting an A for a school essay. I like to think, in this final fatherly gesture, he showed he knew, before I did, the vocation that was meant for me.
A decade later, my grandmother left us. She had long been the pillar of my family but for nearly 12 years had been consigned to her room because of a debilitating stroke. In her 90s when she died, she was mentally sharp to the end even if her body had betrayed her to sickness and age. I was beside her when she took her last breath and helped bathe and clothe her for one last time.
Three decades after my father's death and two after my grandmother's passing, we met again that recent Saturday.
Singaporeans understand all too well the meaning of land scarcity. It hits you when you buy your first little home and realise how long you'll be working to pay off the mortgage. Or when your old neighbourhood is demolished for more intensive development.
Land scarcity also strikes you when you discover your family members' burial plots are not freehold. The lease runs out. Now, you have 30 years before your remains are exhumed. Soon, leases will end at 15 years.
When my family was told we had to move my father and grandmother, we sought out six other relatives and friends with loved ones who had died around the same period. One was an elderly aunt who was to have her husband exhumed. She had already been through the exercise once before, when her late mother's remains were moved from the old Bidadari cemetery. There, she had found only fragments and a gold tooth. It sounded fuss-free, though we were also warned that there was no telling exactly what state a body would be in when it was dug up.
On the day of the exhumation, my family and relatives gathered early in the morning at the cemetery. After some prayers, we separated to witness the exhumations. At each site, the gravediggers plunged their cangkul into the earth methodically. After more than an hour of digging, six feet underground, they hit something hard.
Muslims are buried in a white shroud and placed in the ground with a wooden plank on top. The planks, we were told, tended to survive the onslaught of time. They were the final doors to our loved ones' earthly remains.
At each grave, the worker removed the plank to reveal... muddy water. The rainy weather and the high water table had turned the grave into a flooded pit. On bended knees, the digger combed through the water with his bare hands, moving from the head of the grave down to where the feet would have lain.
Each of the eight graves yielded different remains. Skulls were in varied states, some still with strands of hair hanging on. There were unrecognisable bits in some, but others contained long femur bones black as charcoal and ribs now like reeds of curved cane. Men's bones seemed to survive better than women's bones.
It is as real and as close as you can get to a reminder of human mortality. This is it. They have left behind this shell. But where are they? Depending on your belief, they are either nothing at all, just ether, or they are in another life, in Heaven, waiting to enter Heaven, or perhaps re-born.
There were moments of aching silence. There were tears even though what we saw resembled nothing of the person who once was. But there was also a feeling of gladness for the opportunity to remember and to say goodbye once more.
In the melange of emotions that morning, there was also humour, as we thought about how the departed would have laughed and joked along about this mighty inconvenience of moving house.
Miraculously, my grandmother's brain was intact, 22 years after she died. I had gasped and teared at the sight. But I didn't mind when someone later quipped it must have been due to the nicotine from the cigarettes she smoked to her last days. Someone else remembered she loved to recite a verse in the Quran that avowed mental vigour.
My father and grandmother had had an unusual bond. As in-laws, they squabbled often, but had no trouble bumming cigarettes off each other even in mid-quarrel. There was an unspoken affection between them in the midst of their fierce rivalry for my mother's attention. They had been parted in death, but after that Saturday, they are in the same place again.
That morning, my father and grandmother were mourned once again. In our mind's eye that morning, 12 of us were together again - my father and grandmother, my mother and her nine living children.
My baby brother who lies buried in another cemetery will one day also be moved. In Wordsworth's poem, the girl had a family of seven. For me, we are 13. Unlucky number to some, but I count it as my eternal blessing.