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Navigating Nirvana: Understanding the Price and Value of Columbariums in Singapore

There has been much debate in recent years over the state and regulation of columbariums in Singapore. It is clear that the issue is of some significance to the government and an understanding about the price Singaporean place on columbarium niches is important for the crafting of future policy. More importantly, columbarium niches represent a departure from traditional Singaporean burial practices which typically involve an ancestral tablet being interned within a tomb. The government has stated that there is sustainable demand for land to cater to the needs of the different religious communities for burial facilities and increasingly this land has been allocated for the building of columbariums. Understanding the price Singaporeans place on niches is important for evaluating the opportunity cost of this land used for building columbariums as compared to burying the ashes of the deceased. An opportunity cost foregone is perhaps the extent to which this issue has relevance to the future of Singaporean society.

Columbariums, as the word is understood in this paper, refer to places where funeral urns are stored. The term is a loose one. The architecture of a “niche” or a “columbarium”, properly so called, i.e. a place constructed specifically for the interment of ashes, varies considerably. Often, niches are simply holes in a wall in which an urn is placed; at other times they are granite structures with ancestral plaques. Sometimes “columbarium” refers simply to a building within a cemetery containing many niches. The term is used very loosely in Singapore and often refers to a place where urns are stored above-ground in a wall, within a temple. For the purposes of this paper, the term “columbarium” will refer to both publicly or privately operated places designed specifically for the storage of urns and ancestral plaques.

What is a columbarium?

As societies are becoming more environmentally conscious, many now choose to have their cremated remains scattered in a garden of remembrance or special area, or even at their place of choosing. The term “columbarium” has also now become a euphemism for a “crematorium”. There has been a slight shift in Northern America towards revisiting this “traditional” means of housing cremated remains with the construction of columbaria within or attached to the walls of new church buildings. For Catholics, the remains of the deceased are considered to be an integral part in the understanding of the Christian resurrection of the body and are thus to be preserved and buried in sacred and consecrated ground. This contrasts with some Protestant beliefs about the final disposal of one’s remains. With people’s lives lasting longer and being exposed to more and different cultures and religious influences, the number of people opting for cremation and the subsequent use of a columbarium is increasing. This is essentially the transition from the traditional practice of burying the remains in the ground at a cemetery.

A columbarium is a building or a structure specifically built to store urns containing the cremated remains of the deceased. The form these structures take usually ranges from the “classic” Columbian building to the more modern “drive-thru” style. They are commonly and increasingly used in places where cemetery land is expensive or scarce, such as urban areas. Some churches or other religious associations have their own columbaria. Columbaria are closely related to a mausoleum; the word is often used when the final resting place is above ground. The remains of the deceased may be stored in a niche (i.e., an open recess in a wall), though other options also exist.

Importance of columbariums in Singapore

 

Columbariums have traditionally been seen as a religious space or a place for cremated remains to be housed, but in recent times, the perception of a columbarium has evolved. In developed countries like Singapore, finding space to provide adequate services such as housing, schools, and hospitals becomes increasingly difficult. In a similar context, housing for the dead becomes an issue, speculative as it may sound. It is in this context that we should study the importance of columbariums in Singapore. Columbariums are relevant to the Singapore society as a whole and not just to the Chinese community. This point is evident if we look at the recent government decision to build a multi-religious columbarium in the Mandai area, showing how they are viewed as public facilities to store the ashes of the departed. With an aging population, there will eventually be an increase in deaths and subsequently a corresponding increase in the number of people choosing to have their loved ones’ ashes stored in a columbarium. Add this to the fact that land is a scarce resource in Singapore and how HDB flats built 40 years ago were not allocated with spaces for urns of the deceased, we can see how new columbariums will have to be built to meet future demand or to replace existing ones. A good understanding of the price and value of columbariums will therefore be essential for someone who is facing the death of a loved one or is making plans for themselves in the future. Understanding the cultural significance and financial implications of columbariums. requires a comprehensive analysis of the factors that contribute to their importance in Singaporean society.

Purpose of the study

The review intends to signal the significance and value of Nirvana columbarium Singapore and more importantly, to understand the affiliations to the bereaved who believe in providing a place of rest for the departed. Results of the study could potentially provide insights into the practices and decision-making processes of the land-scarce government and its people. In addition, we hope that the research might act as a reference for various organizations, religious bodies, community, and commercial entities who are interested in providing better alternatives and solutions to the issue of memorialization and provision of funeral space. Finally, the findings could possibly create a better understanding and awareness of the cultural practices and attachment to the departed among future generations of Singaporeans who have no experience of the homeland’s past and have little idea how these changes have affected the local society.

Factors Affecting the Price of Columbariums

The price of land varies according to its geographical position. This is evident in the case of 2 similar HDB housing units located in different estates. The one located in Marine Parade, with all other factors held constant, will fetch a higher price as compared to the one in Bishan due to its proximity to the East Coast and Bishan being a densely populated area where space is a constraint. The same principle applies for columbariums. A niche in a Memorial Park columbarium in Mandai will cost more as compared to a similar niche in a public columbarium situated in Choa Chu Kang. The niche in Mandai, being situated in a nature reserve, offers a tranquil and peaceful environment far from the city’s bustle and is more appealing to many. The niche in Choa Chu Kang, though cheaper, may not have the same attributes. As Singapore is a land-scarce country, public columbariums are usually built near or adjacent to HDB estates where civic amenities are readily available. This is another plus point, especially for the elderly who visit the niches of their departed loved ones. Hence, the location of the columbarium is a major factor in determining the price of the niches.

Location of the columbarium

A comprehensive list can better be found in Lai Ah Eng’s article: “New Housing for the Dead.” However, to summarize, the type of housing, including its proximity to urban amenities and its design and quality, is vastly different from what is found in the HDB market. Lai identifies the locations of at least three types of columbaria: the public temple, the private temple, and the luxury niche apartments. The public temple, mostly managed by charitable religious organizations, is sited within or adjacent to housing estates, with the majority built before 1990. These older temples are typically built in a co-joint complex with a larger temple and may feature open-air walls allowing natural ventilation. Improved technology in recent years has provided these temples the option of enclosing these walls to create air-conditioned comfort for visitors. Newer temples may be found in rural areas gaining government land at a nominal price to develop multi-storey buildings with garden settings. Step above the public temples is the private columbarium sited in or adjacent to private housing estates, providing simple yet modern comfort with full air conditioning and larger niches. The luxury apartment is the latest innovation, mostly built by developers intending to attract HDB flat dweller upgraders. These are high-tech complexes with impressive designs, often emulating the condominiums in an attempt to create a country club or resort-styled ambience. It was considered foreign talent when a local developer attracted a famous Taiwanese singer to purchase a niche in his complex. Depending on the make and model of the cluster, it could widely hold S$300 a month penthouse dwellers to the age-group upgrading S$400,000/yr income baby boomers. Despite its high earnings, the baby boomer generation has become quite concerned about the future. This can be proven by the recent outcry in the HDB and CPF minimum sum scheme policies. This concern has been a major factor in finding a price and value tag for the afterlife housing, also known as a columbarium niche.

Facilities and amenities provided

This factor affects the price in that the more facilities and amenities that are available, the higher the price will be. There are just a few general facilities and amenities which can be found in a typical modern commercialised columbarium which will be discussed to show the varying prices between a typical and a commercialised columbarium. These facilities and amenities are, for example, air conditioning, audiovisual equipment, handicapped seating, valet parking, and other general services such as offering a free meal. From the data gathered, it was found that the price difference between the typical and commercialised columbarium compared to the usual range previously mentioned was about $400 to $6000. With a large difference in price, it is clear to see that having more facilities and amenities available will result in a higher priced niche.

Size and design of the niches

The design of the niche is considered together with the material used for the construction. Leong (2012) interview notes that customized niches built to the exact specifications of the consumer will be priced higher than ready-made niche units. Customization of niche design is done to cater to the preferences of consumers. An example would be the design of niches to be more ancestor tablet altar-like so that traditional Chinese religious rites can be better performed by family members in the future. Others may prefer to have a more modern-designed niche to reflect the changing trends in funeral and mourning practices in Singapore. Ready-made niche units available in small, medium, or large sizes accommodate price differentiation according to niche size.

Alternatively, Seow (2011) argues that some might prefer to purchase a smaller niche if they do not have intentions to have a full-fledged “funeral” for their loved one’s passing and would use the niche primarily as a personal remembrance site. They would prefer not to incur the additional costs of a larger niche, funeral, and niche decoration services when a smaller niche would suffice. The niche material is also an important determining factor in price, with materials like granite and marble niches being priced higher than glass, wood, or metal niches due to their longer-lasting properties and the status value that it holds to some consumers.

Language et al. (2011) suggested that the price of a niche could be affected by various physical factors. The first of these factors is the size of the niche. Generally, larger sized niches with the ability to house the remains of more family members cost more than smaller niches. A niche with a larger aperture (for placing urns) and deeper depth is also priced higher than one that can only house an urn.

Size and design of the niches

Additional services offered

Extra services available are not one-size-fits-all. It is essential to consider the diversity of traditions and cultures. Having a range of options may target different niche markets and be more inclusive. For example, the Chinese tradition of Qing Ming festival and the Muslim practice of Hari Raya are annual events that involve the whole family. A niche in a columbarium which offers such families the option to perform these rites with facilities provided would be more appealing. The flexibility of services may inadvertently lower the price of some packages to cater to the lower income group, but overall the availability of a wider range of services will raise the price of the columbarium.

The availability and quality of additional services may increase the marketability of the columbarium and hence, its price. This is because additional services provide convenience and assistance to the family members of the deceased. They also add value to the niche and allow for customization and personalization. Some examples of additional services include ash collection and scattering models, funeral wakes, on-site photography, and engraving services. At the niche level, niches with attached photo frames and flower vases which enhance the visibility and attractiveness of the niche, or religious-themed niches which come with additional religious ceremonies or rites are examples of how additional services increase the value of the niche.

Understanding the Value of Columbariums

Firstly, it is important to understand the term ‘value’ is not merely dollar and cents in households making the decision to construct or to house the remains of their loved ones in a columbarium. The dollar and cents aspect is just a very small part of what a columbarium is really worth to them. By and large, many Chinese will state that they wish to pass on the tradition of filial piety and the respect for their ancestors to their future generations. Building a columbarium to house the remains of their ancestors creates a permanent place for descendants to hold memorial services and to pay respect to the ancestors. It is a tangible link to the past and many feel that by doing this, it will help to strengthen family bonds and instil the value of filial piety in the generations to come. It is with this in mind that several clans have opted to construct private columbariums for the exclusive use of their members. Secondly, having a peaceful and serene environment will also add value to the place where the deceased are laid to rest. This would allow for family and friends to ‘visit’ the departed in a peaceful environment, conducive to meditation and solemn remembrance of the deceased. This is very unlike some in-land cemeteries where the exhumation of graves is a common occurrence and the land is sometimes repurposed for other developments.

Cultural and religious significance

Compare these principles and practices to current-day death rituals and treatment of the deceased, satisfaction levels are relatively low. Traditional practices involved whole body burials that were to take place in a quiet and natural environment. Graves were then to be tended to on a regular basis by the family of the deceased. As Singapore continues to urbanize rapidly, the scarcity of land has led to a shortage of burial plots and an increase in cremation as an alternative. The handling of ashes is a matter often overlooked and generally unsatisfactory. Ashes are commonly stored in urns which may be forgotten over the years. The placement of urns in a niche was introduced as an alternative to whole body burials and is a much tidier and space-saving method. With the relevance of past and current practice to Indian and Chinese communities, the concept of a niche within a columbarium is actually very well suited. The only issue is the price and availability of suitable columbariums.

Cultural and religious significance is a major part of the Indian and Chinese community and plays a crucial role in death rituals and the treatment of the deceased. The beliefs of the Indian community are such that death is seen as a journey for the soul to be reborn in another life, known as the concept of Punarjanma. The process of rebirth is believed to occur until the soul has finally achieved nirvana or the highest state of peace and happiness. In order for the soul to achieve nirvana, a series of good and bad karma have to be cleared and it is believed that this is best done with a peaceful and proper resting place. The Chinese community believes in filial piety to their elders both living and deceased and it is important to provide a respectable resting place for their ancestors. Ancestors are held with high regard and are believed to play an influential role in the success and well-being of their descendants. As such, the proper storage and worship of ancestors remain important to many Chinese and are seen to be a sign of higher social standing.

Peaceful and serene environment

The peaceful and serene environment that the columbarium offers is also a specific choice compared to the common niche in temples. The Mount Vernon Columbarium is well liked by the older generation for its serene environment and its surroundings simulate the feeling of living in landed property. This is especially popular for retirees who have downgraded to a 3-room flat and no longer have access to a garden. They can visit the niche of their loved one and enjoy the tranquil surroundings. The new niches at Mandai Crematorium are also popular given that the environment is very peaceful as it is situated in a nature reserve. Steps are also being taken to bring that same serene quality into the temple compounds in the available land that they have. Although it is not always the first priority, given the price sensitivity of land in Singapore, it is advantageous for those who want a place for quiet contemplation and to rid themselves of the overbearing feelings that sometimes accompany their grief. An interviewee mentioned how it is not unusual to see people walking their dogs at the designated nature reserve, but at that moment and in that environment, they are still visiting the grave of a loved one. The tranquil and serene setting of a columbarium is conducive to an atmosphere of remembrance and it allows for the creation of new memories that are not necessarily tied to the deceased. Establishing such an environment for a temple niche is difficult as the temple is a multi-purpose building used for religious rites as well as for general community activities. This means that the environment is often not conducive to quiet contemplation and the memories of the deceased may become lost amidst the bustle of other activities.

Maintenance and upkeep of the columbarium

Columbariums are attractive options for the maintenance of ashes due to the perpetual maintenance available, as compared to exhumation from Christian cemeteries after the lease. The concept of perpetual maintenance of ashes through government regulated and built columbariums has become an important dispersion, which the Chinese community agrees is a proper way of showing filial piety to their ancestors. Yet, scattering at sea is preferred by some for they believe that the ashes of a person can be spread globally by the ocean and thus, the deceased shall journey with the sea and not be “confined” to one location. This method of ash dispersion is the cheapest mode as sea burial plots are currently heavily subsidized by the government and urns for sea burial and still cheaper than niches. And since it is yet to be an established concept, there are currently no fixed sea burial plots and urns can be scattered at sea anywhere in Singapore, this remains a less attractive option for many seeking to house the ashes of their loved ones.

Accessibility and convenience

Going back to the survey done in Table 1, we realize that a vast majority of people in Singapore, regardless of age, would prefer not to have to visit secluded areas to pay respects to their loved ones. This is reality and simply just not convenient for anyone.

On the other hand, if we look at the niche system in a temple where ashes are stored in holes in the walls, this is both an inconvenience and strenuous for elderly or handicapped individuals as they are forced to squat or get down on their knees to pay respects to their loved ones.

Now, relating this back to one of the alternatives to niche columbariums, the elderly face greater difficulty with having to climb up to a multi-storey building or squeeze through narrow aisles with rows and rows of niches to locate their lost loved one. Usually, this only offers further frustration as they cannot even find a suitable place to sit down and comfortably pay respect to their loved one. This is definitely not “accessible” for them.

Many people are familiar with the term “handicapped accessible”. A building with a staircase up to the front door would not be handicapped accessible because it does not allow individuals in wheelchairs to enter the building unassisted. This is also relevant to the group of elderly individuals in Singapore. As seen in Figure 1, the percentage of elderly individuals who are unable to perform daily activities independently increases with age. More than 30% of our population above the age of 75 have mobility problems, and this group of people will constantly increase with time due to the increase in life expectancy. Thus, it is important for public facilities to be elderly-friendly and handicapped accessible.

Accessibility refers to the extent to which a product, device, service, or environment is available to as many people as possible. Accessible design ensures both direct access (i.e. unassisted) and “indirect access” meaning compatibility with a person’s assistive technology (for example, computer screen readers).

Comparing Prices and Choosing the Right Columbarium

This is a very crucial decision to make and should not be done in haste. There are a few factors to consider which will increase the chances of making the right choice. By choosing the right place, you can ensure that future generations can easily locate and pay their respects to the deceased. You can compare prices and select the best columbarium by simply starting with an internet search. All the columbariums have websites which provide ample information. Take time to view each website and compare the information provided. Look out for the environment, pictures of the niches, and the facilities that are available. Shortlist a few columbariums to visit for more information. Most of the websites provide a contact number or email, use this opportunity to get answers to your questions which are not available online. When visiting a columbarium, find out more about the pricing packages and payment schemes. Different plans cater to different needs; some plans offer a lease of a niche for a certain number of years, whereas there are also plans which offer a one-time payment where the niche will be held in perpetuity. Most people are often unaware that the niche will have to be vacated if the lease is not renewed, and ultimately the unclaimed remains will be scattered at sea. With these pricing packages in mind, one should also consider the inflation rate and future increase in price for each plan. Make sure that the pricing has been well deliberated and there will be no financial burden for the next of kin to continue paying for the niche.

Researching different columbarium options

The next step in choosing the right type of niche lies in understanding the different types of columbariums available in Singapore. There are different types of columbariums and niche options in Singapore. Niche options range from government-run columbariums to private ones found in temples. One would first consider the location of the niche. Niche locations available typically depend on the type of columbarium it is housed in. Government-run and temple columbariums will have niches located within the columbarium building itself. Some newer government-run columbariums will also have an option for outdoor niches. Private columbariums, which are typically released from the lease of a plot of land to a developer, will build what is known as a columbarium complex. These complexes are small buildings housing niches and are often located near the city fringes. Private columbariums also have different options for niche locations. They are allowed to build what is called an underground columbarium, where niches are located in a basement. This option is not very common as the cost of excavating for an underground columbarium is higher. The other option is a ground level or above-ground columbarium and is the most common type built today. Lastly, for those who have ancestral tablets or wish to house the ashes in a place that allows for more traditional practices, there is also an option of an ancestral niche. Ancestral niches are typically larger and have a space above the niche to place ancestral tablets and offerings. By understanding the different options available, one would be able to identify what is the most suitable type of niche or columbarium for them or their loved one.

Evaluating the pricing packages

The location of the cremation urn is an important decision to think about when comparing the prices and packages of different columbariums. The pricing may differ depending on whether the urn is placed above ground in a niche wall or below ground in a vault to the corridor of remembrance rooms or the garden of remembrance. Niche walls are a common choice for many people as it is usually sheltered and has easy access for visiting families. However, the Nirvana Singapore price packages may also vary depending on the size and design of the niches or vaults. The pricing packages may also include additional services such as engraving, maintenance fees, and access to exclusive facilities and amenities.

Comparing prices of columbariums around Singapore is an extremely hard task. This is due to the fact that many of the pricing packages are very detailed and have fine print, which could result in financial repercussions later on. Many of the packages are based on bidding systems, which are non-negotiable, and there are many different types of urns and niches in types of locations, and with that come many different prices. Some of the packages are even altered to an individual of different nationalities, which may result in price discrimination (in-class lecture).

A pricing package can be defined as an assortment of products and services put together at a specified price (Berkowitz, 2006). In this case, it could be niches at a specific location, and some come with options for pre-planning so the family does not need to make that decision at a later date and leave it till the last minute or even after the death of the loved one.

Considering personal preferences and needs

Family needs also play a part in this. Some niches offer various additional services such as niche tending, niche beautifying, and holding of events. These may be of importance to the family, and hence they would be more inclined to choose one of these niches. All these considerations would weigh heavily on the decision made.

Next, the consideration of who would be visiting the niche frequently is an important factor. If the deceased has many friends visiting, it would be best to locate a niche that is easily accessible. On a different note, if the spouse is the only person visiting, then it would be best to take up a niche in a place where it is peaceful and quiet.

Deciding on the perfect resting place for one’s loved ones can be a daunting task. Hence, it is important to consider personal preferences and the needs of the deceased. Personal preferences encompass one’s cultural, religious, and social backgrounds. These are significant aspects that help the deceased identify itself with the environment after life.

Seeking professional advice

Should the process of selecting a columbarium and niche unit seem too complex, there are agencies and professionals that can aid in the process. A simple cursory search online will yield several agents and agencies catering to this service, but most of these are freelance real estate agents that the reader may have encountered during the purchase of a new home. Specialized niche locating services are few and the reader is encouraged to conduct due diligence in verifying the track record and expertise of such agencies. One should bear in mind that a columbarium is a permanent facility; a direct parallel can be drawn to the selection of a funeral director or death care service provider. Funeral directors typically have working relationships with niche locating agencies and can make a referral if questioned by a client about a niche reservation. Members of the medical community or social workers employed by hospitals or hospices can potentially be a good source of information on such services; these professionals are in a position to have witnessed the recent passing of patients and may have been called upon for advice by patient family members.