Columbarium gives women's ashes to wrong family

SINGAPORE - A family got a rude shock when they visited the columbarium housing their mother's urn during the Qing Ming festival (also known as the tomb-sweeping festival) earlier this month.

The dead woman's urn was missing from her usual spot at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery at Bright Hill Road.

On Sunday, her son, who wanted to be known only as Ray, discovered from monastery staff that his mother's urn had been claimed by a man with the necessary "legal documents" last year.

Baffled, Ray's father produced a receipt which showed that he was the rightful owner of the urn.

Within a day, it became clear that the urn had been given to the wrong family.

Both women had the same name in Chinese and both urns were placed in the monastery in the same year - and in the same block at the columbarium.

Ray's mother died in 1983 while the other woman died in 1959.

The other woman's remains were exhumed, cremated and placed at the columbarium in 1983.

HOSTILITY

Ray's father contacted the family who took his wife's urn, but was met with hostility.

"They were shocked and did not believe us," said Ray, 35. "They even wanted to go to the police."

The other family was persuaded about the mix-up only after columbarium staff explained the situation.

Both Ray and the monastery staff declined to provide the contact of the other family.

A spokesman for Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery told The New Paper that the other family had lost the urn's original receipt.

They applied for a declaration letter through a lawyer so they could remove the urn and transfer it to another columbarium.

UNCLEAR

The declaration form had the urn number, which rightfully belonged to Ray's mother. It is unclear how the family had got the urn number wrong.

The monastery gave the urn to the family based on this information.

Before releasing the urn, monastery staff also checked the date of death, name and photograph with the other family.

Without noticing that the information was incorrect, they collected the urn.

Chinese daily Lianhe Wanbao reported that the urn was collected last March by a man in his 50s who had recently lost his father.

The man decided to transfer his mother's remains from the temple at Bright Hill to be placed with his father's remains at Mandai Columbarium.

Said the monastery spokesman: "This is the first time such an incident has happened at the monastery. In future, the monastery will ensure that families go through a checklist before they are allowed to remove an urn."

She said that the urn will be brought back to its original spot from Mandai Columbarium today.

"Out of goodwill, the monastery will bear the cost of the transfers, which will include Buddhist rites and vegetarian offerings.

"It is regrettable that this incident happened and we will do our best to mitigate the situation," the spokesman added.

Ray is relieved that the matter has been resolved.

He had noticed that the urn was missing only this month because he was overseas during last year's Qing Ming festival.

"Luckily, he hadn't disposed of my mother's remains. Imagine if the ashes were thrown into the sea instead," said Ray.

EACH URN HAS UNIQUE NUMBER

Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, one of Singapore's oldest Buddhist temples, also houses a crematorium and columbarium.

There are over 200,000 niches at the columbarium at Bright Hill Road.

A monastery spokesman said that an original receipt must be produced before a family member can retrieve an urn.

Each urn has a unique number, and a name and photo on it. The monastery's records are both in hard copy and electronic forms.

In 2008, The Straits Times reported that there are at least 60 columbaria here - three Government-run ones in Mandai, Yishun and Choa Chu Kang, and 57 private ones, including those in churches and temples.

CHECKS

Over at Nirvana Memorial Garden, a five-year-old columbarium known for its modern design, records are also kept electronically and in hard copy.

Most names engraved on the niches are in Chinese characters but there are records in both English and Chinese.

There are checks at every step, from purchasing the niche to the final step of placing the urn at the niche, said Ms Jessica Feng, general manager of operations and training.

At Nirvana, most cases are "checkins," which means they handle urns from the recently deceased, transfers from another columbarium, the recently cremated and exhumed.

"It is an elaborate process, and serves to ensure the relatives of the deceased that their loved ones are in a good place," said Ms Feng, who added that "checking out" an urn would require a similarly rigorous process.

Nirvana has not handled any checkouts yet.

linheng@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 30 in The New Paper.

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