Mr Tommy Lim, 58, visits his sister's niche once a year for the annual Qing Ming Festival.
This year was no different.
But when the taxi driver and his mother, 86, arrived at his sister's niche at Mount Vernon Columbarium last Friday morning, they were shocked to find that the marble plaque on the niche had been broken.
They had a bigger shock when they realised the urn containing her ashes had vanished.
He told The New Paper: "We were so upset and my mother started crying. Her first words were, 'Who took her?' I was also very angry. How could someone's ashes go missing?"
He showed TNP what was left of his sister's niche at Mount Vernon Columbarium on Wednesday.
Only the lower portion of the plaque - bearing his sister's name Lim Hwee Huang and the dates of birth and death - was still intact.
His elder sister had died at the age of 30 in a car accident 30 years ago.
Mr Lim said: "We had no choice but to offer prayer and burnt offering to an empty niche and we did it with a heavy heart."
He had intended to relocate his sister's ashes to a temple in Aljunied, where he had bought a place for her, his father, his mother and himself.
His father's ashes are now at Lim Chu Kang Cemetery. Mr Lim said: "But if my sister's ashes are lost, how will we have a family reunion?"
The next day, Mr Lim reported the matter to Mandai Columbarium.
Both columbariums are managed by the National Environment Agency (NEA).
Mr Lim said: "They told me there is nothing they can do. They have no security, no CCTV footage, and it is a space open to the public."
He said the management at Mandai Columbarium told him the ashes could have been illegally removed.
Mr Lim said he was shown a photo taken in April last year of his sister's niche still intact and another photo taken last October showing it damaged.
WHY NOT INFORMED?
"This means her ashes must have gone missing during those six months. But why weren't we informed?"
Mr Lim made a police report on Monday. A police spokesman confirmed the report and said the investigation is ongoing.
An NEA spokesman told TNP that it is in touch with the next-of-kin and is assisting the police with their investigation. (See report above.)
Mr Lim said his cousin helped him contact NEA on Tuesday.
NEA got back to him yesterday to ask if it could give his registration information for the niche to the police.
Mr Lim said his mother is still upset, but told him that if they are unable to recover the ashes, they will stop praying to his sister.
"My mother told me, 'Thirty years ago, I lost my daughter. Thirty years later, I lost her ashes.'
"Though she is sad, she is practical and we know that life goes on," said Mr Lim, who did not want TNP to speak to his mother in case she becomes more upset.
By reaching out to TNP, Mr Lim hopes that anyone who might know where his sister's ashes are will come forward.
He wondered if the ashes could have been stolen or if someone had mistakenly relocated the urn, because Mount Vernon Columbarium, which has about 20,000 niches, is undergoing a relocation programme to make way for the Bidadari housing estate development.
NEA announced last October that the next-of-kin should claim the ashes by June 30, 2017, so they can be relocated to other government-managed or private columbariums.
Mr Lim, who is the contact person for his sister's niche, said he had not requested to claim the urn containing her ashes and did not receive any notification that it had been relocated.
"If it had been really relocated by mistake, part of the marble plaque would not have been left behind and the 'hole' would have been covered with a white board," he said.
Mr Lim hopes his experience will alert others with niches at Mount Vernon Columbarium to check that the ashes of their loved ones are safe.
He also appealed to whoever might have taken his sister's ashes: "All I ask is that you return them to us. I won't be angry with you."
NEA: No application to remove urn
The National Environment Agency (NEA) is aware of a case where an urn containing ashes was removed from a niche at Mount Vernon Columbarium.
Responding to queries from The New Paper, an NEA spokesman said it had not received any application for the cremated remains at the niche belonging to Mr Lim's sister to be removed.
The spokesman said the agency is in touch with the next-of-kin and is assisting the police with investigations.
The agency said there had been previous cases where the next-of-kin removed the urn from the niche without first applying to NEA. These cases were resolved after further investigation.
When TNP went to Mount Vernon Columbarium on Wednesday, there was no sign of closed-circuit television cameras at the blocks housing the niches.
The NEA website states that the columbarium is open from 7am to 5.30pm daily. But Mr Lim said that when he and his mother went there last Friday at 5.15am, the gates were open.
"Anyone can go in and out as they please. I just hope that I can alert others to my case so they can go and check on their loved ones' niches," he said.
Other columbariums use CCTVs, guards
It is important that the deceased can rest in peace so their families can have peace of mind, said Mr Dennis Ng, 48, the general manager of a private columbarium, Nirvana Memorial Garden Singapore.
"Paying respects to deceased loved ones is very important in our culture, and in turn, we also want to provide the deceased with a good place to rest with dignity," he said.
He said Nirvana has security features such as closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in all its three buildings and two resident monks and a caretaker to look after the place every night.
Nirvana has about 30,000 niches in closed quarters and the doors to the rooms that contain the niches are locked from about 5.30pm to 8.30am every day.
In front of each block of niches, there are glass doors that are locked every night.
"Not just anybody can open the door and walk in.
"Our customers won't like it if anyone can come in and open the niche doors or vandalise them. We want to give them total peace of mind," Mr Ng said.
Another private columbarium, All Saints Memorial Chapel, houses more than 27,000 niches and has CCTVs and security guards who patrol the area.
Its operations manager, Mr Samuel Chia, 47, said its caretakers and cleaners are responsible for reporting any damage to the niches. The niches, which are in closed quarters, are open to visitors only between 8am and 7pm every day.
NEXT OF KIN
"Only the next-of-kin or persons whose names are on the forms (used to book the niche) can make changes or relocate the ashes. The authorised person also has to be present when changes are being made," he said.
Mr Ng said Nirvana has a similar system: Only the purchaser of the niche or someone with an authorised letter from the purchaser is allowed to make requests for relocation.
"It's sad (for Mr Lim and his mother) that a loved one's ashes is missing. It's something valuable... I would also be very worried if I were them."
This article was first published on April 16, 2016.
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