Combining Tech with Ancient Traditions: An Insight Into Singapore's First Smart Columbarium
Step into the future of memorialization with Goldhill Memorial Centre, Singapore’s first smart columbarium. This sanctuary combines modern intelligence with treasured traditional values, providing families with a smart and convenient way to honor and remember their ancestors, according to Hoo Hung Chye, Deputy CEO of Life Corporation Services (S) Pte. Ltd. In our discussion with Hoo, we explored how technology has revolutionized traditional columbariums, as well as the importance of funeral pre-planning.
Name: Hoo Hung Chye
Company: Singapore Funeral Services & Goldhill Memorial Centre (subsidiaries of Life Corporation Services (S) Pte. Ltd.)
Specialization: Smart Columbarium and Funeral-related services
Base Country: Singapore
Q: Can you tell me about yourself? How did you get into the funeral industry?
H: My parents began in the food and beverage industry, wholesaling items like nuts and water to funeral wakes. This connection helped us build relationships with funeral service providers, and when family friends needed funeral assistance, they would always come to us.
After my parents retired, I started my own funeral company called Singapore Funeral Services (SFS) in 2000. Today, we mark 23 years since its establishment.
Q: How did the idea of a Smart Columbarium come about?
H: In the year 2000, the funeral industry was quite outdated compared to other industries like hospitality. Funeral service providers were dressed casually, wearing slippers and shorts while escorting people to their seats, which seemed inappropriate. Recognizing the need for change, we traveled abroad to countries like Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, where funeral services were already making positive changes.
We learned many ways to enhance funeral services and decided to lead the change. We started by introducing black suits instead of casual attire. People were surprised at first, mistaking it for a wedding. However, I believed that wearing a suit not only reflected our professionalism but also respect for the grieving family.
After that, we started bringing in new ideas and improvements. We introduced things like coffee machines, tablecloths, and even Wi-Fi at funeral sites. Many of the things that are now common in funeral services today were pioneered by us.
The Birth of Singapore's First Smart Columbarium
As pioneers in modernizing the funeral industry, we constantly look for new ideas and innovations to better celebrate and honor one's life.
During our exploration, we discovered Japan's automated storage system used in temples for columbariums. This system maximized land usage efficiently. Considering Singapore's high population density and limited land availability, we realized that this concept could be applied here. Through a pilot project that we collaborated with the Ministry of National Development, we conceptualized, designed, and eventually launched Goldhill Memorial Centre (GMC), Singapore's first smart columbarium.
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Q: What sets Goldhill Memorial Centre apart from a traditional columbarium?
H: GMC is a private columbarium that provides spaces called niches where families can keep the cremated remains of their loved ones. GMC's columbarium is smart and modern, eliminating many issues that exist in traditional columbarium while still maintaining the values and traditions associated with a columbarium. It offers privacy and convenience to family members who want to honor and remember their ancestors.
There are three key advantages of our smart columbarium over traditional columbarium – privacy, welcoming environment and feng shui.
Pain Points of Traditional Niches
In a traditional columbarium, finding niches can be challenging due to the location having multiple blocks, levels, sections, and shelves of varying heights and orientations. Once you find it, the niches can be placed at inconvenient heights or at low positions, making the process of paying respect a little awkward.
When you are paying respect to your deceased family member, it feels like an open party where you are also paying respect to everyone in the entire block. It is common to wait in line to use the space, especially when there are multiple families in the block. In the Chinese culture, it's customary to wait for the incense to finish burning before leaving, and those waiting behind you may observe your actions, which can compromise your privacy and create an uncomfortable experience.
Additionally, in certain older temples, there are numerous old black and white pictures that are frightening to children. Children visiting these temples often feel scared because they feel that the eyes in the pictures are staring at them. These unsettling encounters make it difficult for the younger generation to establish a sense of connection with their grandparents or ancestors.
Transforming Traditional Columbaria
When we were designing GMC, we put in a lot of thought into solving the issues that people face at traditional columbarium.
At GMC, you can easily access your designated niche with a simple card tap and password input. Our fully automated system makes it easy to locate specific niches within the columbarium.
After which, you will proceed to a private booth or room where you and your family members can pay respect to the deceased and have personal and intimate moments with the deceased without worrying about being observed. You can grieve sincerely and have a quiet moment without any disturbances. The booking of the private space can be done online. During your allocated time, the multimedia screen can be used to display photos and videos, creating a special memorial tribute for the deceased.
We believe that by making the experience welcoming and comforting, we can better bridge the gap and connect the different generations with their ancestors.
Incorporation of Feng Shui Elements
Next, the elements of feng shui were incorporated into the design of our columbarium to ensure the well-being of the deceased and their descendants.
Chinese tradition believes that the burial placement of ancestors will affect the fortunes of the next three generations of descendants. Thus, choosing an ideal final resting place is important, such as burying the deceased underground with a mountain behind, ideally overlooking a vast and open expanse, or even having a sea view.
The preferred orientation of the niche is “sitting north and facing south”. This concept arises from people’s desire to harmonize with natural forces and attune to the essence of mountains, rivers, the sun, and the moon. By doing so, it aims to cultivate both the body and mind with the earth's aura, fostering the growth of exceptional individuals.
In the past, only wealthy families could afford to do this. Emperors, in particular, prioritized finding an ideal burial place for themselves as their feng shui would affect the fortunes of the whole nation and dynasty. So most of the imperial mausoleum faces south from the north, to show that these are treasure lands with superior geomantic omen (also known as feng shui).
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Lack of Burial Space In Singapore
In Chinese tradition, burial was the preferred final disposition after death, but this has been replaced with cremation in Singapore due to lack of space and most columbarium storage facilities are built above ground and facing different directions.
Traditional columbarium are built like stacked “locker” units, where bottom rows are very near to the floor and the top rows very near the ceiling. This greatly inconveniences the families when they come to visit and pay respect. Thus private columbarium charge a premium for niches that are at optimal eye-levels where families can stand and the niche is in front of them, not needing to kneel down or use a ladder. Some columbarium also tag a premium to niches facing certain Buddhist statues as this is believed to bring more fortune to the deceased and their family. Premium prices can be double or triple the amount of the lowest and highest niche levels.
At GMC, we make these prime feng shui elements available to more people. We created an underground storage for urns, thus fulfilling the wishes of many to be able to be “buried underground”, and consulted feng shui specialists to ensure positive energy for the descendants by incorporating the five elements of nature, which are water, earth, fire, metal, and wood, into the building’s design.
Favorable Feng Shui
GMC is also well situated feng shui wise.
Singapore is likened to a pearl resting at the mouth of the Malaysian peninsula. Our location serves as a focal point where positive energy and vitality is generated and gathered from the vast landmass of the surrounding continent, much like a precious pearl formed by converging natural forces. It is believed to be protected by five hidden dragons that bring prosperity to the country, and that the closer you are situated near the dragon’s head the more powerful the positive force (“qi”) is.
GMC is fortunate to be located on one of these dragons, aligned with this line of qi that is believed to bring greater fortune to descendants.
Q: How does the price of Goldhill Memorial Centre's smart columbarium compare to that of a traditional columbarium?
H: The price of a columbarium niche can vary based on factors like ownership (private or public), space, location, facing, the range of services provided, the ability to personalize the space and others.
As expected, the cheaper ones tend to have more restrictions, less amenities, less consideration for feng shui, less maintenance, etc. It's somewhat like comparing public housing to private housing, and within each category, there's a wide range of offerings and pricing.
But I would say that compared to traditional private columbarium, where a double niche (housing 2 urns) at eye level can cost between SG$20,000 and SG$40,000, our prices are slightly lower.
Q: I’m assuming that most people buy the niche space as part of their funeral pre-planning. How does funeral pre-planning work?
H: Whether you like it or not, death is an inevitable part of life. It’s important to plan and ensure that those you leave behind know exactly what to do and there won’t be any family disputes.
Religious and financial differences within families can lead to disputes about funeral arrangements. For example, siblings who have different economic situations may argue about who is going to pay for the funeral, and multi-religious families can have disagreements about the type of wake to hold.
Pre-planning a funeral is like writing a will. It allows you to clearly communicate your choices to your family while you still have mental capacity. This reduces confusion, alleviates concerns for your surviving family members, and minimizes unnecessary conflicts. You don't want to burden the next generation with difficult decisions.
Inflation of Funeral Costs
Funeral costs have significantly increased over the years. Nowadays, we are looking at an average cost of SG$15,000 to SG$20,000, whereas around 20 to 30 years ago, it used to cost about half of today’s price. To help deal with the increasing costs, Singapore Funeral Services is one of the few firms in Singapore that offers prepaid funeral plans to help our clients get a sense of security and relieve the burden on their mind by locking in today's prices for specific goods and services that they want in future.
At present, there is no expiration on the prepaid funeral plan, and it covers the essentials such as the casket, wake duration, hearse, and transportation. You can also customize the plans to suit your needs.
It’s quite similar to wedding planning, where you can customize your funeral based on your values and preferences, such as duration, religious rituals, and burial or cremation preferences. You can even choose a theme, like a specific color or a Star Wars theme, for a more personalized funeral.
This interview has been edited for length.
What is the difference between a traditional columbarium and Goldhill Memorial Centre's (GMC) smart columbarium?
GMC's columbarium eliminates many issues that exist in traditional columbarium, such as inconvenient niche locations, a more welcoming environment, etc., while still maintaining the values and traditions associated with a columbarium. It offers privacy and convenience to family members who want to honor and remember their ancestors.
How much does a niche cost in Singapore?
The cost of a niche is can vary based on several factors, such as the ownership (private or public), space, location, facing, the range of services provided, the ability to personalize the space, and others. Book an appointment here with GMC to discover detailed information about their niche offerings and pricing.
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