Bukit Brown Cemetery, Singapore: Where Nature and Heritage Collide

It’s not every day I visit a cemetery for fun, but Bukit Brown Cemetery is not your average graveyard.

Graves in the Forest

Abandoned in the 1970s, this cemetery, the largest Chinese cemetery outside China, became overgrown and forested in places, migratory birds stopped over and the graveyard turned into a lush, green, nature-lovers’ paradise. Imagine Bukit Brown without the graves, and it could be a nature reserve. Add the old Chinese graves, many with intricate stone carvings or tiled walls, and you have a rich cultural treasure.

Why should I rush to Bukit Brown now?

Bukit Brown Cemetery is under threat. Singapore government plans will create a massive eight-lane highway cutting right through the middle of the cemetery, destroying the natural value of the landscape and removing many graves.

The planned road signs

The planned road is shown on signs around the cemetery with graves staked for exhumation behind.

Graves that are in the way of the road development plans have been marked with stakes for exhumation, and people with ancestors buried at Bukit Brown are already coming forward to claim the remains. Graves must be claimed by the end of December 2012 or they will be exhumed by the government starting next year.

After that, the bulldozers will roll in, and Bukit Brown will have a road to lower journey times by a few seconds as compared to the current existing road that runs around the cemetery. Future plans and proposals include further development of the area for expensive housing.

Guard statue

Statues like this guard some of the graves.

What can I see or do at Bukit Brown?

The threat of destruction has led to an increased interest in the cemetery by local people. All Things Bukit Brown offers tours of Bukit Brown, looking at the graves of some well-known figures, as well as their style and design. Don’t worry if you’re not a local. I attended a tour and learnt a lot about Chinese Singaporean culture and heritage. If you’re interested in finding out about the cemetery, I recommend going on a free tour to see a completely different side to Singapore from the usual tourist attractions.

Alternatively you can visit Bukit Brown alone and enjoy a pleasant wander across the five hills that form the cemetery. A small river runs through the middle of the valley, which contributes to the good feng shui. This was one of the reasons for the original selection of the site as a cemetery. A marshy area surrounds the river, and further up the hills on each side it becomes forested.

River and marshy areaYou can see graves that are still tended by relatives of the dead, with leftover offerings, as well as overgrown long-abandoned graves. Some feature photographs of the dead, and the different grave designs and inscriptions are interesting. Although most are in Chinese, there are graves with English writing as well.

Can I do anything to Stop the Road Development?

The SOS Bukit Brown website offers advice on how to get involved, from signing the petition to letter-writing and spreading awareness.


Toraja Graves: From Cliffs to Caves

Having watched a Torajan funeral ceremony the previous day, we decided to visit some of the unusual burial grounds in the area, namely cliff and cave resting places. First we visited the village of Lemo which is famous for cliff burials.

Lemo gravesCliffside Graves

Residents of this village and its immediate area, who must belong to one of the local clans, are buried in holes cut out of cliffs. I read that this tradition started because Torajan people are usually buried with their wealth, and that valuable items were sometimes stolen from graves. The graves were moved into the cliffs to deter would-be thieves.

Entering the area we paid the small entrance fee; although this is on the outskirts of a tiny village, it is set up for tourists, with some souvenir stalls. Walking down and across paddy fields, towards to sheer rock face of the cliff, the countryside was stunningly beautiful and serenely peaceful. There were no other tourists when we arrived and we saw all the wooden doors of the grave holes.

Graves in CliffsStatues of the Dead

As well as burying their dead in these cliffs, wooden statues of the dead called tau tau are carved and displayed on balconies hewed out of the cliff. More modern statues are made to resemble the dead person, but it is prohibitively expensive to commission a statue for most people, costing millions of Rupiah where it was traditionally paid for in buffaloes. I found the wooden statues standing staring blankly with their arms outwards quite eerie.

Looking more closely at the grave doors, we could see that some had recent dates written on them, and others were actually open, though we couldn’t see inside. Walking along we came upon a pile of unsmoked cigarettes, which we later found out was an offering, and some bones. The general atmosphere was spooky, with no one else around.

A recently used graveA Living Tradition of the Dead

Having had enough of this unique graveyard, we headed round to the entrance, passing souvenir stalls selling replica wooden statues and crossing paddy fields. We chatted to some of the stall holders and found out that in fact, people of this area are still buried in the cliff today; it is not a dead tradition. More than one person is buried in each hole. In the past the corpses quickly rotted away, providing space for the next one, but nowadays because they are preserved with formaldehyde during the period before burial, they take longer to decompose.

Graves in Caves

Filled with this somewhat gruesome information, we moved on to our next stop on this graveyard tour, the village of Londa, which features graves in caves. Again a small village but nicely set up as a place of interest for visitors, we paid the entrance fee and were offered an oil lamp (with a man to hold it). If you have a torch that is sufficient to see inside the caves, but if not then it is worth hiring an oil lamp to avoid bumping your head on a coffin or knocking a skull off a shelf.

Coffins, skulls and bones fill the caves.The two caves, which are joined by a narrow corridor, are still in use as grave sites. Wooden coffins are shoved in anywhere they’ll fit, along with offerings which can take the form of anything the deceased liked during their lives. We saw food and drinks as well as cigarettes scattered around the coffins as offerings. Bones and skulls line the caves’ natural shelves and little baby coffins are perched up near the ceiling. It feels like something from a horror film but this is an ongoing tradition.

Outside the caves are more coffins, this time suspended on wooden shelves hanging down from above. A row of statues of the deceased completes the eerie scene.

Statues of the dead

Makassar, Sulawesi: A Fiery Spirit and Youthful Energy

Makassar is the largest city in Sulawesi and a popular place to begin a trip to the island. I had been advised by friends to get out of Makassar, a city lacking in culture, as quickly as possible. But I wanted to see this port city, which is often featured on Indonesian TV news due to demonstrations and riots. Makassar was known as Ujung Pandang from 1971 to 1999 which is why the airport code is UPG.

Makassar streetMakassar felt hot and dirty, with litter strewn across the streets. During the day a peaceful but busy atmosphere ensued but by night the city came alive. Youths sat around on plastic chairs sipping non-alcoholic drinks with their friends, nightclubs offered karaoke or dangdut, an Indonesian popular music. The city has a thrilling type of energy which I have not felt in other Indonesian cities so far.

In terms of sightseeing there’s enough to fill a day or more, and it’s easy to get around on foot or by cycle rickshaw. There are even motorcycle rickshaws in some areas to go a bit faster.

Fort Rotterdam

Situated a stone’s throw from the sea in central Makassar, Fort Rotterdam was captured by the Dutch in 1667 from the Gowa kingdom and rebuilt. The colonial buildings are extremely well-preserved, and some of the Gowan ruins can also be seen. Entrance is by donation; we gave Rp. 10,000 for two people.

Fort RotterdamOn Saturday evenings there are arts performances at Fort Rotterdam beginning at 5pm. Unfortunately we weren’t in Makassar on a Saturday, but it would be worth checking the schedule if you’ll be there.

Makam Diponegoro (Diponegoro’s Grave)

Diponegoro was a Javanese prince, born in Yogyakarta, who opposed Dutch colonial rule and was active in the Java War of 1825 to 1830. In 1830 the Dutch exiled him to Makassar, where he lived until his death in 1855. Today Diponegoro is considered a national hero of Indonesia.

Diponegoro's graveDiponegoro’s grave is in a well-kept courtyard, surrounded by graves of Diponegoro’s family. We spoke to the grave’s caretaker who claimed to be one of Diponegoro’s descendants. Entry is free though guests are required to remove their shoes when approaching the grave. There is a guestbook and a box for donations.

Pantai Losari (Losari Beach)

We walked along the sea front in the evening and stalls lined the side of the road selling pisang ebe, bananas cooked with a choice of flavours, such as chocolate and cheese (a popular Indonesian combination!).  Some stalls also sell drinks and I tried jus viu, a juice drink made of orange juice and milk. It was surprisingly tasty.

Pantai Losari by nightAt the main point of the beach front there are large letters spelling out “Pantai Losari”, by night a place for hanging out, wandering about and chatting to friends. We were a little disappointed to see the dirty condition of the area, with litter lying on the ground and floating in the sea. But Pantai Losari is a city beach, and city beaches are rarely clean.

A City for Wandering

Makassar is a pleasant city for wandering and we often came upon interesting places and tasty food in this way. We were welcomed into a five-storey Chinese temple which offered panoramic views from the top floor, and we enjoyed eating deliciously fresh fish.

View across MakassarIt is worth spending a day or more in Makassar, to soak up the atmosphere, which is so different to the large cities I have visited in Java and Sumatra. While there may not be traditional arts everywhere, Makassar offers a taste of modern Indonesia, with a vibrant, youthful energy.