He visits cemeteries in his spare time and takes others on night tours among the dead
UnXpected is an original AsiaOne series where we speak to people with unconventional interests to find out what keeps them going despite the sometimes negative perceptions of others
When you first meet Joshua Rachatitipong Thanadon Teo Yi Hao (yes that's his official name), he seems like your everyday Singaporean. Except that while other people might spend their free time shopping (a Singaporean favourite), exercising or gaming, Jo as he prefers to be called, heads to a cemetery when he wants to relax.
An affinity with cemeteries
His association with cemeteries started when he was 13 and he would head there with his friends. "We walked all the way from Jalan Bahar [to the Choa Chu Kang cemetery] as we were young and had no money to take a taxi.
"We'd sit at the cross junction here in the cemetery and we'd have a Coke and ton (stay up) through the night until about 6.30am, 7am, then take the bus to go home again."
Over the years, he has explored the various cemeteries around Singapore and yes, he has a favourite cemetery — Bukit Brown Cemetery. He used to frequent it so often that even his mother has gone there with him.
While his mother has found his interests in cemeteries unusual, and initially did object to it, she has since learnt to embrace his uncommon interest.
And interestingly enough, Jo attributes his attraction to cemeteries to his maternal grandfather who was a Mao Shan (Taoist black magic) master. "I think that it's in my blood that I like this kind of things," adding that he had considered becoming a medium previously.
As for Bukit Brown, sadly it is no longer the same as exhumation has taken place to make way for construction. The main gates have also been relocated.
Touring cemeteries with people
His frequent visits to the cemeteries also meant that he has acquainted himself with the people who are regularly there for unique practices in a cemetery.
One practice in particular piqued his interest — exhumation. This is when graves are dug up and the remains cremated to free up land for development, thanks to Singapore's small size.
And since he is a regular visitor, he made friends with those who are in charge of digging up the graves and through them, learnt more about the process, which he now shares with those he brings on guided tours.Exhumed graves have the tombstone removed and the bodies dug up, before it is covered in soil and sometimes cement again. PHOTO: AsiaOne
"I started this tour because I realised that we've exhumation here in Singapore….There is a cap of 15 to 20 years after which the bodies would be exhumed sent for cremation. I hope this tour can help more people understand the whole process of exhumation."
A typical tour goes like this. He'll pick up his guests from the nearest MRT station and there are usually no more than four guests per tour, as that is the number that will fit into his car with him. He then brings them to Choa Chu Kang cemetery, specifically the Chinese cemeteries. His explanation of why is simple: "It’s my culture and the one I'm most familiar with."
That’s the same reason why he doesn’t really visit the Muslim cemetery, which is located just across the road. “At least (with) Chinese ghosts, I roughly know what to do if something happens. The other ghosts, I’m not so familiar.”
On the way in the car, he would then go through the do’s and don’ts of his tour, which include sticking close to him at all times and not stepping on the graves while doing the walkthrough.
“I also advise them to say, ‘uncles, aunties, sorry that we’re here to disturb’, as we walk past the different graves.”The graves at night PHOTO: AsiaOne
At the cemetery, he picks a spot to stop his car at one of the ‘blocks’. From there, they will walk in-between the graves and Jo will explain a bit about the rituals associated with deaths, burial, and of course, exhumation.
His aim too, on each tour, is to uncover a grave that is in the middle of being exhumed so that guests get a peek inside a coffin that has been underground for at least 15 years to see what it looks like.
He usually ends each tour with guests reflecting on their experience, and yes, he is pantang (superstitious). He gets guests to wash their hands and face, and to “clean” themselves with pomelo leaves. And if you’re hungry, he’ll have supper with you too.
His safe haven
While some guests have reported “feeling things” on the tour, all have come out from the experience unscathed, Jo proudly says. He himself has had some encounters, but nothing that has bothered him too much, hence his continued visits to the cemetery.PHOTO: AsiaOne
In fact, for him, there is no better place to clear his head than a cemetery. While he no longer spends the night there like he would in his younger days. he would head to the cemetery at about sunset and just look out into the graves on the slopes. Especially if he’s having a “not-go-good” day.
“It’s really hard to explain, but there’s just a sense of peace, one that I can’t get anywhere else.” Watch our video to find out more why Jo thinks he can't get away from cemeteries.