Wednesday 29 October 2014

More opting for fuss-free burial at sea

Buddhists and Hindus form majority of those wanting ashes scattered there
By Audrey Tan, The Straits Times, 28 Oct 2014

HE HAS spent more than three decades of his life navigating the sea and, when the time comes, Mr Ong Kai Cheng, 63, hopes he can do the same in death.

The Buddhist bumboat operator has instructed his three children to release his ashes into the sea after he dies.

"I do not wish to trouble my children by making them pray to me after my death," he said in Mandarin.

Mr Ong's sentiments are echoed by a growing number of individuals whose last wishes are to have their ashes scattered at sea, rather than having them stored in niches at columbaria.

Undertakers here have seen an increase in the number of sea burial requests, with the majority coming from Buddhists and Hindus.

Singapore Casket, for example, oversees more than 20 sea burials a month, compared with fewer than 10 five years ago. At Serenity Casket, for every 50 funerals, about five to eight are sea burials. This, said its funeral director Elson Chong, is more than the two to four the parlour conducted five years ago.

The bumboat operator, Mr Ong, is also taking more people out to sea to scatter the ashes of their loved ones: from once or twice annually 10 years ago to the current minimum of four a month.

The growing popularity of sea burials is due to a number of reasons, funeral directors told The Straits Times. The main concern is to not burden their offspring or family members during the annual Qing Ming Festival, said Mr Nicky Teo, director of Funeral Solutions. During the festival, Chinese families pay their respects to their departed loved ones at the cemetery or columbarium.

Others opt to have their ashes scattered at sea so that their descendants have more freedom in where they can pay their respects. Said Mr Roland Tay of Direct Funeral Services: "Some people have children who live abroad, so by scattering the ashes at sea, they believe the future generations can complete their prayers any time, anywhere."

Some people also wish to "travel" the world in the afterlife, and sea burials meet that desire, said Singapore Casket chief executive Goh Wee Leng.

Sea burials are cheaper compared to storing ashes in a columbarium, but undertakers pointed out that this is usually not a determining factor for those who choose sea burials.

The scattering of ashes can cost from $80 to more than $1,000, depending on the religious rites. This compares to the minimum $1,180 for keeping one's ashes in a niche at a columbarium. Depending on where the niche is located at the columbarium, and whether there is air-conditioning, the cost could go up to $100,000.

In Singapore, the scattering of small amounts of ash can be done at a designated site located about 2.8km south of Pulau Semakau, off southern Singapore, according to information on the National Environment Agency's website.

The Straits Times understands that ashes are also scattered in open waters off Changi. No permits are needed for sea burials.

Typically, the rite is performed by a monk or priest with props including flowers or bread crumbs, umbrellas and plastic trays. These items are usually released into the sea along with the ashes, held in white or red cloth, after a short prayer session.

Recently, a biodegradable urn for storing ashes was introduced here, a result of growing environmental consciousness among the young. Made of recycled paper, the urn slowly disintegrates when placed in water.

But the urn has yet to take off, said Funeral Solutions' Mr Teo.

"Some family members feel that it is not good to keep the ashes 'trapped' in a vessel," he said. "But I would advise them not to throw out items that can pollute the waters, such as food offerings, joss sticks and incense paper."

For Mr Ong, his preference for sea burial goes beyond practical reasons. "My children grew up on my earnings from the sea, so, of course, I would hope to make it my final resting place," he said.

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