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CNA Dec 6, 2011

Work begins to identify, document graves at Bukit Brown

By Hoe Yeen Nie

SINGAPORE: Work has begun to prepare Bukit Brown cemetery for a future road.

Contractors hired by the Land Transport Authority have been identifying affected graves while volunteers have also started to document the site.

In the last few weeks, a forest of wooden pegs has sprung up at Bukit Brown.

These pegs are in fact serving notice to the public that the affected graves will be cleared within a year.

Volunteers led by Dr Hui Yew-Foong, Fellow and Coordinator of the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, have also moved in to document the site. The information is expected to be made available online.

Dr Hui said: "Every grave here is important. Every grave tells a story and every story is worth recording and taking down. We want to reconstruct what life was like in this place in the past; what the social life was like and what was the cultural life."

The volunteers work in pairs - one will jot down the inscriptions on tombstones while the other takes photographs.

The images are captured from right to left and every 45 degrees around the grave so that a 3D image can be created if needed.

It is not an easy task as some graves are overgrown and some tombstones have collapsed.

Time and weather have also worn away the inscriptions but the volunteers pressed on.

Some volunteers, like Michelle Teoh, have family members buried there.

Ms Teoh said: "For me it's very important that my children know about where they come from. By being involved (in the project), hopefully they'll get interested in their great-great-great grandfather."

Some members of the public said that a cemetery needs to be appreciated in its context and want Bukit Brown to be gazetted as a heritage park.

The Singapore Heritage Society, for instance, is working on a policy paper on how this can be done with input from stakeholders.

Ideas that have been proposed include erecting signs to help visitors navigate the site with information boards that explain the history and significance of certain graves.

Dr Terence Chong, an executive committee member of the Singapore Heritage Society, said the society is open to having something similar to Bidadari Memorial Garden.

At the Bidadari Memorial Garden at Mount Vernon Road, the tombstones of 21 prominent Christians, Hindus and Muslims - like Dr Lim Boon Keng, Sir David James Galloway and Haji Abdul Rahim Kajai - can be found there.

While their remains have been cremated, the tombstones serve to remind visitors that the site was once a cemetery.

But Dr Chong noted that "if you were to remove tombs, then the significance of this place would be reduced. And the greenery, as well, is quite important in contextualising the cemetery."

Time is also pressing on Dr Hui and his team of about 300 volunteers.

They have to document several thousand plots before the list of affected graves are made public in March.

The team also plans to record the rituals of ancestor worship, the process of exhumation, as well as the history of the old cemetery village.

With so much to do, volunteers have to work as fast as they can before the bulldozers roll in in 2013.

Members of the public who are looking for someone buried in Bukit Brown can now do so on the website of the National Archives.

The records are in English and the names are listed according to the date of burial.

Members of the public who wish to locate the burial records of their ancestors buried at the Bukit Brown cemetery will need to first determine their ancestors' names and dates of death before searching the uploaded records.

Those who need more information will still have to make a trip to the National Archives near Fort Canning Park.

- CNA/fa 

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