Columnists

So Aunty, So What?

Published: Wednesday December 17, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday December 17, 2014 MYT 10:18:46 PM

Grave concern and burning issues

All Malaysians, regardless of what their beliefs are, should have right to affordable burials and cremations.

IT’S a road I use to bypass traffic jams to get home. I use it so often I hardly notice the funeral parlour and crematorium on the left. But somehow as I was passing on a recent wet weekday, the rubbish-strewn car park fronting the parlour hit me as an unmistakable eyesore.

The crematorium is no better. This Selangor council-operated faci­lity is clearly run-down and showing its age.

Perhaps the company operating the funeral parlour does not think the car park is its responsibility and presumably neither does the local authority.

But there is no excusing the lack of maintenance for the crematorium which is very well used. Last year, there were 850 cremations.

I can’t help but compare it to the state-run crematorium and columbarium in Mandai, Singapore.

My uncle was cremated there some years ago and I found the well-designed complex with its high ceilings, sombre colours, landscaped grounds with tranquil water features befitting its purpose: to send off the deceased in a dignified, efficient and respectful manner while providing mourners with a sense of solace and comfort.

I can’t think of any public-opera­ted crematorium in the Klang Valley that comes close to the Mandai complex; neither do I know of any go­vernment-built columbariums.

This made me wonder about the options we have in burying or cremating our dearly departed in this country.

What I unearthed is cause of grave concern in a plural society like ours. And it is this: there does not seem to be adequate planning or allocations for non-Muslims to bury their dead, especially in urban areas like the Klang Valley.

An online portal reported in April that the scarcity of burial grounds had led to non-Muslims interring as many as three coffins in one grave in public cemeteries.

I am familiar with the concept because my grandparents share a single grave in a Singapore cemetery too.

Grandpa died in the 1950s and when grandma passed on 20 years later, her coffin was placed a couple of feet above his in the same plot.

That is understandable in land-hungry Singapore but why the need for this in Malaysia?

Why aren’t there more public cemeteries for Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and people of other faiths who want to bury their dead?

It is time for us to open up more public space for Malaysians of other faiths – and even those with no religious beliefs – who want their remains to be returned to the earth.

Traditionally, Christians prefer burial too, and in consecrated ground. The oft-spoken phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is based on the Bible: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)

It is only in fairly recent times that Christians adopted cremation as an acceptable alternative.

But just because citizens of other faiths can accept cremation of their dead, it should not mean the state can overlook the need to allocate enough land for non-Muslim public cemeteries.

Sure, the private sector, seeing a lucrative gap to fill, has stepped in most enthusiastically. And for non-Muslims, it has become almost automatic to bury or cremate using private facilities.

That’s why the euphemistically termed “bereavement services” sector is doing roaring business.

Burial plots in beautifully landscaped private cemeteries are selling like hotcakes at prices in the thousands.

For those who prefer cremation, these private outfits also provide cremators and columbariums to keep the urns of ashes.

For the better-known burial grounds run by reputable companies, prices are also rising because of demand.

In many instances, family members will even forego superstitious beliefs and book plots ahead for the living, as a form of investment.

I know of one cemetery run by a church that is so popular with many Christians that they no longer allow pre-booking.

Only if one member of the family dies, will they allow the next plot to be reserved.

And the prices are also going up, even though they were quite affordable at the beginning when compared to those run by the private companies.

However, what about those who cannot afford such burial plots, especially when the prices seem to rise in the same manner as houses for the living?

A good comparison may be with regard to how people turn to either a public or private hospital for treatment.

While many may prefer the comfort and ambience of a private hospital, those who are not cover­ed by insurance or protected by their employees have to opt for the go­vernment hospital.

Thankfully, they do have a choice, and we are still assured of good medical care at public hospitals, even if the waiting and comfort may not be similar to what the private sector has to offer.

Just like in medical care, the go­vernment, especially at the state level since land is a state matter, has a responsibility to provide such facilities that are well-designed, properly maintained and upgraded when necessary.

And these structures should also be designed with a thought to the physical and emotional needs of grieving families of the deceased. That’s not too much to ask, right?

> Aunty likes old cemeteries because they are repositories of loss and remembrance with tombstones giving touching glimpses into the lives of those buried there. Feedback to junewong@thestar.com.my

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, Columnists, June H L Wong, columnist

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