Bukit Brown: The Disappearing Graveyard

• Dispatch #12 •
In 2013, I visited one of Singapore’s former cemeteries.

It must seem like an odd thought, but I think cemeteries are some of the most peaceful places in the world. One of these is Bukit Brown Cemetery, the biggest Chinese graveyard outside of China.

A tree grows over the dead.
A tree grows over the dead.

I should probably write “was” as Bukit Brown is officially a former cemetery, although heritage advocates put up a good fight.

Indeed, the first thing that caught my eye during my visit was a sign that said “Registration for Exhumation”. The graves will make way for more urban development of the area.

I find this quite sad, as a few steps into the graveyard made me feel happy, peaceful, and miles away from the noisy highways that were already there.

A red and green gravestone
A red and green headstone

But I suppose I should count myself lucky I was there at all, to see it before it all disappeared. Despite being part Chinese myself, there were many similar and different things I saw in how Singaporean Chinese bury their dead.

The graves of Bukit Brown
The graves of Bukit Brown

Pinwheels adorned several gravestones. This was easily my favorite part; I felt that it celebrated the lives of the departed.

Pinwheels decorate some graves.



I smiled at the familiar practicality of these pink plastic flowers.

Plastic flowers
Plastic flowers

Even more familiar was seeing real oranges given as an offering.

An offering of oranges
An offering of oranges

There were beautiful details carved on the gravestones, each telling a story from Chinese culture.

Beautiful details
Beautiful details
Rust brown Chinese headstones
Rust brown Chinese headstones

The gravestones themselves are smaller and lower than the large markers and mausoleums that I grew up with.


Bukit Brown was established in the early 20th century and held the graves of Chinese pioneers in the Lion City. One of them, Boon Lay, is recognizable even to expats like myself, as an MRT station is named after him.

Bukit Brown could be named Bukit Green, as it was verdant and lush with life, making it an oasis of tranquility and a respite from the busy city. There were families, joggers, couples on a walk, and fellow explorers. I loved seeing the yellow-beaked maynas, the makeshift altars, and the carpet of leaves on the ground. The trees shielded me from the otherwise intolerable heat of Singapore.

Lush greenery... it should have been Bukit Green instead of Bukit Brown
Lush greenery… it should have been Bukit Green instead of Bukit Brown

RIP, Bukit Brown. I’ll miss you, pinwheels and all.

Once more, with feeling. PINWHEEL!
Once more, with feeling. PINWHEEL!



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