Singapore Style Columbarium

by AFP/Philip Lim, Dec 11, 2010 | Destinations: Singapore

Funerals are normally sombre affairs but at the Nirvana Memorial Garden in Singapore mourners could be forgiven for thinking they had strayed into a luxury hotel with a mystical Asian theme.

The self-proclaimed "six star" columbarium, where families can store the ashes of their loved ones for a fee, offers a modern and lavish twist to the ancient tradition of honouring the dead.

At a recent ceremony in a dark, cavernous auditorium, a deep male voice intoned in Mandarin: "I will live on happily in your image and always remember you."

Green and red laser beams shot out from the foreheads of three 10-metre (33-foot) tall gold-plated Buddhas as soothing chants and ambient music played from cinema-quality loudspeakers.

Suddenly, a beam of pure white light from above illuminated the main attraction: an urn containing the ashes of a recently cremated person, sitting on a revolving pedestal shaped like a lotus flower.

The 13,000 square-metre (139,931 square-foot) centre is the biggest and most ambitious project by Malaysia-based columbarium operator Nirvana.

From the "check-in" to the long-term stay, the company, which operates smaller projects in Indonesia, Cambodia, Taiwan and Vietnam, consciously replicates the feel of a top hotel.

"Actually it's not for the dead people, it's more for the live people," said Phang Siang Yang, Nirvana's country head in Singapore, a largely ethnic Chinese society with a rich but rapidly ageing population.

"We encourage the next generation to always come and visit and pray," he said, adding that it was important that descendants of the dead "won't feel that this is an eerie or scary place."

Entering the lobby of one of the centre's two blocks, one is greeted by a giant gold-plated Buddha statue towering over a water feature.

Cream-coloured leather sofas are arranged in accordance with "feng shui" -- the Chinese belief that positions of objects directly affect fortune.

Inside the complex, gold-plated niches, Buddha statues and ancestral tablets await the ashes of the departed in fully air-conditioned "suites" complete with carpeted floors and sofas.

As in hotels, customers are issued magnetic swipe cards which open electronic doors and switch on lights designed to produce a soft, warm glow.

The services do not come cheap.

Charges range from a one-off fee of 2,880 US dollars for an "economy" suite with a single niche to 167,380 dollars for a "royal" suite that can house an entire family's ashes.

Revenues now stand at about 1.5 million dollars per month, barely a year and a half after it started full-scale operations, said Jessie Ong, marketing manager for Nirvana in Singapore.

To date, roughly 50 percent of the columbarium's 7,518 niche lots have been taken up.

A third block will be completed in the next phase of development.

"We're still seeing the potential," Phang said.

"I think within another few years' time, the aging population will reach about 20 percent."

Because of its low birth rate, close to nine percent of Singapore's population was aged 65 years and older last year, with the proportion expected to rise to 20 percent by 2030, according to official statistics.

Phang also wants to promote Nirvana Singapore as a tourist attraction and plans to furnish a mini-gallery with Buddhist relics.

A landscaped garden decorated with stone tablets engraved with early forms of Chinese calligraphy and a temple with an elaborate lighting display are also in the works.

"This is our vision, that this place becomes a tourist attraction and temple," Phang said with a smile.

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