Exploring the Evolution of Columbarium Niche Design in Singapore


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Columbarium niche in Singapore has its unique identity due to the land scarcity and the multiracial and multi-religious society in Singapore. Our land scarcity forced niches to be placed indoors and it is usually air-conditioned as it is more comfortable for the visiting families. Local niches comprise mainly of the niche frontage which is locked behind niche gates with inscriptions or photograph plaques and the niche is built around a corridor. Niche doors in Singapore are usually smaller and it reflects the Chinese, Indian, and Malay practices compared to those in western countries. Traditional American or European niche designs are rarely seen in Singapore. A prototype of an ideal niche would be able to cater to all religious and races, thus a good niche design should be culturally and religiously sensitive to cater to the multi-religious and multi-racial society in Singapore.

Columbarium niche is a specific area in a Building and Construction Authority (BCA) approved columbarium which houses cinerary urns. The durability, convenience, and aesthetics of the niche largely depend on the design of the niche. In an urban city like Singapore where over 70% of the citizens live in HDB flats, most space planning is done in a compact environment. A good niche design is important in optimizing land use and providing an appropriate place for the bereaved to remember their loved ones. The niche should also be easy to maintain as it can reduce the cost of repair, and it should be culturally and religiously sensitive.

Definition of columbarium niche

In the context of this research, the term “columbarium niche” has been generalized to describe niches within the entire columbarium building, particularly focusing on indoor niche designs. This definition is applicable to niches in both public and private columbaria. The reason for this broad definition is that niche designs in public and private columbaria are not mutually exclusive. In recent years, there has been a trend of adopting what was traditionally private columbarium niche design for public columbaria. This is largely due to land constraints and the desire for increased revenue. The differences and similarities of public and private columbarium niche design will be discussed in the following sections.

A columbarium niche is a structure that is specifically designed to house an urn containing the ashes of a deceased person. The concept of a columbarium niche dates back to Roman times, where the ashes would be stored in hollow spaces within the walls. There were also elaborate free-standing structures constructed with niches, sometimes including a small chapel and serving as a family tomb. The modern concept of a columbarium niche is much the same, an individual compartment to house the ashes of a loved one, usually in a wall within a structure.

Importance of columbarium niche design in Singapore

The alternative in cremation has thus gained popularity over the burial of a physical body. In the years to come, more citizens will purchase a niche to house their own urns or have the urns of their deceased moved from exhumed graves. This has led to the importance of Singapore Columbarium Niche Design. With the niche being the final resting place for the urn, it is a tangible reflection and memory of the deceased. A good niche design would bring comfort and contemplation to the visitor. It also provides a form of closure and acceptance when the niche has been personalised by the deceased or by the expressions of thoughts from loved ones.

Land scarcity has led to the exhumation of graves from the Mandai Columbarium and the Mount Vernon Columbarium to make way for new development. The dead are then cremated and moved to make way for new graves. The impact of such an exhumation process does not affect the dead, but the emotions and thoughts of living loved ones. This has led to the government being cautious in providing land for new burial plots and columbaria.

In Singapore, the progress and prosperity of the nation is well-favoured by the citizens, but the age of development has come at a cost. Scarce land space is one of the most pressing problems Singapore has faced over the years. With the high population density in the country, the dead do not get to ‘rest in peace’ as much as the living are charged to rest.

Purpose of the study

Niches in public columbaria in the past were allocated through ballots. The niche consumers were not able to choose their desired niches and were at the mercy of the Government to assign the niches. With privatisation of columbaria, there was a need for the different companies to bid for tenders to design, build and run the allocated plots of land given by the Government. This was to create a more vibrant and competitive industry, providing a wide range of choices for niche consumers. A common strategy used was differentiating themselves from other competitors through niche design. This can come in the form of the materials used, the architecture, or the extra services. Today, the niche consumers are more empowered and have a wider range of choices compared to the past and the implications of the design on niche consumers are more significant. The information garnered will be compared between public and private columbaria to understand the different motives and constraints on niche design. A brief comparison will also be made with niche design in countries like Japan and China to understand the cultural influences on the design.

This study aims to explore the evolution of columbarium niche design between 18 public and 21 private columbaria in Singapore. The study seeks to investigate the iconic transformation of Singapore’s “governmentality” for columbaria through the design of niches. It aims to understand the implications the designs have on the niche consumers—the living family members of the niche users. This research will look into the history of columbaria in Singapore to provide a context as to why niche design has become so important today. Through interviews, this research will be an attempt to understand the intentions of niche design and how it has evolved to what we see today.

Historical Background

A historical background of the evolution of columbarium niche design in Singapore is crucial in order to appreciate the extent of the changes from traditional niche designs to the current ones. There were no records of early columbarium niche designs in Singapore. Based on interviews with older generations of Chinese, Indian, and Malay Singaporeans, it was found that most of the early niches were either structures carved into a wall, an alcove in a temple, or a niche within a family shrine. Unfortunately, there were no photographs or sketches of these niches. It is believed that the Chinese niches were similar to those that are still found in parts of southern China, with an enshrinement tablet placed in a niche within a wall. The tablet was inscribed with the deceased’s name and posthumous name (if applicable), and his ancestral village, and sometimes the date of death. It was usually made of wood or cheaper materials, as it was believed that the tablet would eventually be destroyed when the fate of the deceased in the afterlife was to be reincarnated. The niche would be covered with a pair of couplets and sometimes a painting or a photograph of the deceased. Compared to the Chinese, there is less information about the Indian and Malay niches. Indian niches were generally simple in design with an alcove in a solid structure to house an earthenware pot or a brass urn, which contained the ashes of the deceased. The niche would be covered with a photo of the deceased and a garland placed by the family. It was similar with the Malay niches, which were usually alcoves within family shrines.

Early forms of columbarium niches in Singapore

Early forms of columbarium niches in Singapore were simplistic in design. This is most likely due to the fact that the average income in Singaporeans was low and they had just come out of a war not long ago. As a result, they could not afford to spend much on niches or funerals. In the earlier years, secondary niches have always been the preferred choice of Singaporeans. This is due to the fact that in the earlier years, columbaria were built only by the government and never by the temple as it was seen as a religious item and it was also more cost-effective as compared to niche walls. An example of a secondary niche built early would be the one at Choa Chu Kang cemetery which was built together with the columbaria built by the government then. These secondary niches may come in the form of a simple plaque or a marble/stone with an engraved message of the deceased or their family. This may have a small area for a flower vase to be placed. An example of a niche built by a private company and allocated to the consumer would be the one at Mount Vernon. These niches may come with a photo of the deceased, an urn pit, a depository for joss sticks, and some have their own drainage and lighting. The niche could be purchased or leased and may come with pre or post-death services. With today’s concept in mind, the features of the earlier niches are relatively basic.

Influence of cultural and religious beliefs on design

The underlying philosophy in early Chinese death culture was that a peaceful resting place will bring blessings to ancestors and descendants alike. Prior to the Tang and Sung Dynasties (618-1279 AD), urns were often placed in underground chambered family tombs. In the event that the descendants were forced to sell off the land or during times of war and unrest, it was not uncommon for the urns to be moved and sometimes lost. This was considered an utmost disgrace, and in many instances, descendants would attempt to relocate the urns, often leading to dangerous situations. Then, during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911 AD), the niche concept was introduced, but it was reserved for the placement of urns in the temples of the wealthy and accomplished. These urns were generally considered to be a public display of filial piety and an offering to the deceased. Due to the belief in three stages of death, the urns of common people would often be moved to make way for new ones, essentially losing their place of rest.

Design and construction of columbaria, much like any other structure, is as much a reflection of the society in which it is created as it is a practical solution to a problem. In this case, these structures serve as storage of cinerary urns, an alternative to scattering or storing urns at home. The decision to house urns in a columbarium as opposed to keeping them at home is often influenced by religious and cultural beliefs. Different societies will attribute different levels of importance to urns and vary in their definition of the proper way to handle and store them. Therefore, the first step in understanding the evolution of niche design in Singapore is to understand the Chinese death culture during the eras in which the various types of niches were constructed.

Changes in columbarium niche design over time

With the more secular mindset of the present population and increasing awareness, the trend is towards the scattering of ashes and the placement of ashes at niches has become less common. This has resulted in a decline in the demand for the traditional niches and an emergence of more alternative methods as mentioned before. Amongst those who still choose to place ashes at a niche, there is a growing preference for private columbariums over HDB ones. This can be attributed to the increasing diversity of religions in Singapore. Private columbariums cater to the different religions by having niches of different designs to suit the needs of different religions. An example would be the Niches at the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery which are similar to the Buddhist niches of the past. Today, many Christians are also looking to place their loved ones’ ashes at niches. Traditional niches are not suitable for them and some private columbariums have special niches for Christians with designs reminiscent of a church or cathedral. Although niche design has become more diverse, niche quality at HDB blocks has decreased in recent years due to space constraints. This has resulted in HDB niches being of similar design to the simple niches of the past. Niches are now just small openings in walls that usually have just enough space to place the urn and plaque of the deceased. Most people today would consider if they want to place an ash at such a niche as there are better options available.

In the past, the design of columbarium niches was simple and traditional due to the lack of technology. It typically consisted of an urn placed in a niche. This was similar to both the Taoist and Buddhist niches as niches meant for keeping the urns of the deceased were usually simple holes in the wall with a cover that had an inscription of the deceased. Designs became more complex in the 90s with the introduction of government-built niches in columbariums in an attempt to standardize and consolidate the ashes of the deceased. These niches had unique designs, were made of marble or granite, and came with an urn compartment, a small plaque for an inscription, and sometimes a glass cabinet for placing pictures of the deceased.

Contemporary Columbarium Niche Design

Because of social and cultural transformations, architectural styles for columbaria in Singapore have evolved, differentiating contemporary columbaria from traditional ones. A distinct shift towards modern designs is particularly heavy among the private funeral firms leading towards the introduction of more modern materials and interment options. One of the key changes in design and style would be the shift towards niches from traditional ancestor tablets. Niches are compartmentalised storage spaces for cinerary urns containing ashes of the deceased. This report will give an overview of some of the modern architectural trends in Singapore columbariums, assess the integration of technology in niche design and the factors contributing to the sustainability and eco-friendliness of niche design.

Modern architectural trends in Singapore columbariums

Modern columbariums are usually equipped with the most advanced architectural design and materials available in architectural engineering. Typical features would include abstract building shapes, imported marble and stone tiles, and stainless steel niches. Some modern buildings have even put in niches with unique materials like glass and even fiber materials painted with marble design to entice niche buyers. Glass niches were introduced in the early 2000s or so as the government allowed more flexibility in niche design in order to entice more innovative and efficient use of land and space for niche storage. The most important is the usage of architectural elements to outshine each other to attract buyers. An example would be amazing building structures and artistic sculptures to embellish the whole columbarium. A good local example would be the Floating Abode Columbarium which has an artificial lake in the center with the building structures built around the lake. Each building is linked by bridge structures to the next building. This is a unique modern building design structure which generations of niche buyers would remember and it reflects their niche storage experience in this modern era.

In Singapore, the trend of high-rise columbarium buildings is highly vibrant, making it one of the interesting places in the world in terms of columbarium architectural designs. Most of the government-run and managed columbariums are sited on a higher level land in order to conserve land usage. Hence, high-rise columbarium buildings were the most practical architectural designs for niche storage. Concrete cities like Singapore have limited land availability and hence the only way is up. In recent years, private columbariums and temples have also been on the rise in quantity as the local demand for niches has also increased. Most private columbariums are built in the traditional temple sort of look and feel where niches are placed in temple buildings. But of late, temple management boards have cited high-rise buildings being the much-preferred design type as it avails low land usage and frees up more land for other religious activities. A good example would be Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery which its management has mentioned about redeveloping to a high-rise columbarium complex.

Integration of technology in niche design

In today’s technological age, the emergence of more sophisticated and complex IT devices and hardware has enabled new methods of simulating how we communicate both fictional and non-fictional information and art to others. In comparison to the text and imagery that similar devices were able to provide in the past, the increase in communicative abilities has resulted in the inclusion of more abstract forms of information as a means to add a greater depth to the message or data that is to be conveyed. One method that the modern world has taken to preserve information is through the use of digital media. As time progresses, traditional forms of media such as print and canvas steadily deteriorate and their information can be lost. To prevent the loss of this information, one may translate the data into digital form and store it within a computer or online. This concept has been applied to the information left by the deceased, with various companies proposing to store detailed information about the deceased individual’s life within a database and display it in the form of a digital memorial. A recent example of this would be the deployment of the “OnePeople” system at the Choa Chu Kang Columbarium Complex by the Singapore Bereavement Service Pte Ltd. This service is primarily a niche locator that aids visitors in finding the niche of their deceased loved ones, but it also provides basic textual information about the deceased individual in the form of simple web pages to add a more personal touch as opposed to a physical directory. The existence of this system sparked the interest of computer science undergraduates at the National University of Singapore to develop a more sophisticated form of digital memorial known as the Virtual Columbarium, which resembles a virtual recreation of the complex and displays detailed information about the resident in question when their niche is clicked on. Digital memorials such as these as well as the OnePeople system are examples of how IT has the potential to alter the existing niches and memorials of a columbarium, creating an entirely new niche design that transcends the boundaries of traditional tangible media.

Sustainability and eco-friendly aspects of design

With increasing emphasis on sustainability and environmentally-friendly design, there has been a growing trend in Singapore for utilizing earth-friendly materials and landscaping to develop a green columbarium. Unlike conventional architectural materials, green or eco-friendly materials have a lower impact on the environment and are often locally sourced to reduce the carbon footprint caused by transportation. Such materials can include biodegradable urns, sustainably harvested wood, bamboo and other rapidly renewable resources, recycled/reclaimed metal or plastic, and non-toxic finishes or sealants. The use of earth-friendly materials is often a critical component in sustainable niche design, but sustainable design is a much broader concept. It encompasses the entire lifecycle of the building, from site selection, to master planning, to building design, construction, operation and maintenance, and ultimately, to building reuse and/or decommissioning. At the design and construction phase, sustainability can often mean higher initial costs for long-term monetary savings and a reduced environmental impact. This is especially pertinent to the use of energy-efficient lighting and HVAC systems, and water-saving plumbing in niche structures. Over time, operating costs can be expected to be lower as less energy and water are used. High-performance, energy-efficient niche designs may be eligible for awards or incentive programs that reduce the cost burden. As sustainability gains momentum in modern western cultures, it is expected to play an increasingly more important role in niche design, and the Singapore Government is likely to push for more stringent sustainability guidelines in niche construction in the near future.

Future Directions and Innovations

In all likelihood, the future design of columbaria in Singapore will revolve around the continuing space constraints plaguing the small nation. Within this broad parameter, there can be several anticipated trends to ensure maximum niches can be provided within a limited land area. The first would be the reduction of circulation and communal spaces within a columbarium. While these spaces are currently important for the Singaporean Chinese community’s death rituals, the introduction of niches into HDB void decks by the government might spur a change in attitudes by the time the niches available within void decks are oversubscribed. Furthermore, the rising average age Singaporeans now attain before passing on means that future niches must be designed with the elderly in mind. Increased provision of niche spaces in easily accessible locations is thus another likely trend. Given that marble is now a scarce resource, future columbarium niche design will also involve the use of alternative materials. Newer materials such as granite and glass have already been used in recent niche construction, and are likely to become more prevalent in the future. The mode of construction for niches might also change. To ease future maintenance and refurbishment, niches might be mass produced off site and installed into columbaria, learning from the experience of HDB void deck upgrading.

Anticipated trends in columbarium niche design

This notion is somewhat contrasted by Daugareilh and Elizabeth, who argue that modern functionalist and minimalist architecture in public facilities devalues traditional forms of monumental architecture designed to immortalize the achievements of great men. This trend has been seen in some modern public columbaria, where a lack of funding and changes in attitude towards life and death have left an obvious gap in the quality and style of niche designs between old and new.

This concept is further backed by Thebe and Gokcen, who state that the original motives behind interment methods influence the design of modern columbaria. They argue that whereas the purpose of a prehistoric burial mound was to hide, delay or defeat the decomposition of the corpse, in order to keep the dead amongst the living, modern tomb structures are designed to protect urns and niches, rendering niche clusters a closed and private area within the columbarium. This has led to an increase in demand for privacy and security, suiting niche structures with walls, doors and various forms of decorative facades to make them look and feel like tombs or small houses. Such structures are reserved for the elite who wish to emulate high class residential living and aim to provide the deceased with continuous esteem and recognition.

Goh and Ong focus their research on the effects of globalization and consumerism on the architecture and design of niches in public columbaria. They argue that niche design has evolved into more elaborate forms of ancestor worship and memorialization, involving commodification of religion and culture. Niche designs of old were simple alcoves or display cases in a wall, but have now progressed to individual, free-standing structures, each serving as a small shrine for the interred remains of a single individual.

There are multiple summaries involved in the research by Goh and Ong, Thebe and Gokcen, and Daugareilh and Elizabeth, to outline a comprehensive analysis of modern trends in niche and columbarium design and provide an understanding of the development process involved. Through evaluation of the research of others, both directly and through implications on the authors’ own design methodologies, a definite understanding of modern trends and future directions may be obtained.

Potential advancements in materials and construction techniques

Materials and construction techniques form an important foundation for the design of a columbarium and can have significant repercussions on its economic and environmental sustainability. In order to maximize land use, many high rise columbaria are being built. Mr. Ang of Theverge has noted that to his knowledge, “columbaria are usually around 5 stories high, and these are generally the most common ones” and “the multi-storey ones, of course their main concern is a physical one which is space”. The study of using pre-cast construction methods that can substantially reduce construction time and noise pollution is already underway in Hong Kong and similar methods are being considered in Singapore to reduce disamenity to the surrounding population. Some researchers are also considering steel frame structures in an attempt to minimize the use of concrete, steel having a higher salvage value and being easier to recycle. With advances in building technology, there is also the belief that by the year 2050, building materials will have increased in quality and longevity, and the same building will be usable after an overhaul of its interior design. All of these methods are considered more environmentally sustainable than traditional building methods, utilizing less land and building materials, and allowing more versatility in space utilization for different niche designs. Steel frame structures, however, may be considered as creating an aesthetic that is too utilitarian for a place for the dead. One must remember tropes of sacred space and place in designing a columbarium that still primarily serves as a place for the dead and is a symbol of religious piety. Given the predicted smaller land space for future columbaria, building underground columbaria should also be considered as it does not only save land, but prevents the problem of niche disamenity to the elderly above ground. Consideration must be taken, however, as to whether the elderly would accept an idea that is so contrary to traditional Chinese burial and belief.

Impact of changing demographics on design considerations

As the future of columbaria niche design develops, the key cultural and traditional design elements that are so prevalent in Singapore will need further exploration. Without firm national guidelines or policies, columbaria have a high level of design freedom and are often constructed based on the stylistic tastes of developers. While research indicates an overwhelming public preference for clean, simple and low-profile designs in the Western world, such designs may conflict with the intricate nature of Buddhist and Taoist columbaria and the traditional tastes of the elderly in Singapore. As mentioned by Lee, too radical a departure from traditional designs may result in unfavorable reactions from the elderly and ultimately their non-acceptance of niche columbarium in place of ancestral tablet enshrinement. Given that the elderly represent a significant portion of niche columbarium users, it is important for designers to consider their cultural, religious, and traditional values when designing niche columbarium to ensure their needs are met and a sense of dignity is maintained. This may increasingly involve the employment of cultural experts and focus groups to comprehend the needs of different ethnic groups and the consideration of building separate niche facilities for different religions or clans within a single complex. Demographic trends have shown an increasing prevalence of nuclear and single-member families and a corresponding decline in extended families. As the BTO generation reaches old age, the shift away from multi-generational living will impact upon future death rites and the services demanded from niches. Without traditional home altars and lacking the social support of extended families, there is a greater likelihood that the elderly in the future will seek niche columbarium as a means of individual memorial and private prayer. This change in demand has significant design implications, suggesting a greater need for niche atriums and private niche clusters located away from heavy foot traffic and communal areas. The same demographic shift will also impact the services required of niche on a healthcare and accessibility level. High numbers of niche users with mobility difficulties will necessitate barrier-free access and universal design features.

Role of public opinion and feedback in shaping future design

However, while private clients may know what they want, public perception of death and its surrounding practices may undergo drastic changes in the next few decades. Death practices are intertwined with culture and history, and in today’s globalized world, many of these factors are subject to rapid change. Global or local changes in attitude may produce a situation in which future design is guided by public health policy rather than client desires. This has already been seen in issues surrounding columbarium niches in Singapore, such as the government’s controversial 2008 decision to ban new ones in public housing flats. An understanding of the needs of specific minority or cultural groups will also become more important. With multiculturalism on the rise in many countries, future niche designers may find themselves trying to balance the needs of very different groups of people within a single architectural space.

It is interesting to speculate on the future of design in the field of columbaria, largely due to the very young age of niche design as a specific discipline. One key factor is the level of interaction between the small profession and the wider public: compared to architects working in more traditional fields, niche designers often have a closer understanding of the needs of their clientele and are more readily able to translate these needs into tangible design features. Focus groups and similar data are becoming more common in the field – as they are in the field of dying and bereavement in general, which is increasingly considered a legitimate area for academic research. Data provided by groups such as the bereaved, the dying, or religious organizations will be a key tool in guiding future design.

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