Text and video by Gan Chong Jing, based on an interview in August 2020
In the dead of night, the cemetery is still. Emptied of the living who come to visit in the day, the place once more belongs only to the rows upon rows of the deceased who rest beneath the tombstones. But there is one person who remains in the cemetery to keep the dead company long after everybody else has gone. Throughout the night, he hacks at the soil, digging to bring the dead back up to the surface.
For most people, the thought of working in a graveyard alone late at night would be terrifying. Not for Hosen Md Bulbul, a 26-year old Bangladeshi national who, through an unexpected turn of events, found himself working as a gravedigger tasked with doing exhumations at the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery. In fact, this seemingly unsavoury or even disgusting occupation stands in his memory as his favourite job he’s held in Singapore.
In 2018, Bulbul’s Imo (a popular messaging app) account was hacked and used to conduct a scam. He reported it to the police. The following year, when Bulbul’s Work Permit was about to expire and he was about to return home, the investigating officer requested that Bulbul remain in Singapore as a potential witness for the case.
To ensure that prosecution witnesses like him continue to have income for the duration of their extended stay, Singapore has a Temporary Job Scheme and Bulbul was offered a few different jobs to choose from: cleaning dormitories, cleaning housing estates, manufacturing … or being a gravedigger in the cemetery.
Bulbul’s friends all warned him against taking up the cemetery job. There was a common impression among his fellow workers that the cemetery job was incredibly dangerous, or that the cemetery was haunted. Even though many workers initially take up the gravedigger position, many resign after one or two days, he tells me. “My friend, he tells me, you take this job, you must be die.”
Bulbul’s response was, “Die never mind. I can do this job,” flashing an easygoing smile through his mask. When I ask Bulbul why he was so enthusiastic to sign up for a job that nobody else wanted to do, he answered sheepishly but matter-of-factly that the job didn’t require him to wear safety goggles or a safety helmet while working, unlike his previous jobs in the construction industry.
Neither scared nor superstitious, Bulbul didn’t think twice before agreeing to take on the job, and for the next nine months, from June 2019 to March 2020, he became one of many gravediggers working at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery.
His job was simple: every shift, his boss would assign him graves that needed to be exhumed. Bulbul would hack at the soil and dig until the coffin was exposed, then cut it open and carefully remove the remains inside. He would then hand the remains over to his boss, who would then give them to the next-of-kin.
We often think of the grave as a final resting place for the dead, but in Singapore, due to land scarcity, burials have a maximum period of 15 years, after which the body is exhumed and usually cremated, so that the burial plot can then be reused. Furthermore, in recent years, tens of thousands of graves at Choa Chu Kang have been marked for exhumation so that the land can then be converted for the future expansion of Tengah Airbase. In Singapore, gravediggers don’t just bury bodies — they dig them up, too.
But such an unsavoury job usually escapes the public eye, as do the labourers who do this necessary task. Bulbul estimates that there were at least a hundred gravediggers regularly working at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery, employed by 16 different companies — and all of them were foreign workers.
His regular working hours were from 7 am to 7 pm, but he would often work overtime or even late into the night, claiming that he sometimes worked 20- or 24-hour shifts when he received an urgent exhumation order. In fact, he frequently requested to do night work because he liked working at night — without the heat of the sun, work was a lot more bearable.
Because of these overnight shifts, Bulbul describes to me how he would often spend the night in the cemetery. To make the trip back to his dorm to sleep in the middle of the night, and then make the return trip early in the morning to report back by 7am, would mean that Bulbul would only ge two or three hours of sleep. Instead, he used the marble tiles that ran along the border between two adjacent graves as a makeshift bed. In one month, he would often spend six to seven days sleeping over in the cemetery.
Because so few workers are courageous enough to take on the job, and because of the long hours and frequent overtime that it demands, Bulbul was rewarded handsomely for his months of labour, drawing a salary of around $3,000-3,500 a month. While his employer demanded a lot of work of him, he nonetheless compensated Bulbul fairly for all his work — something that leads Bulbul to say that this was his favourite employer to work with in all his years in Singapore.
And Bulbul would have gladly continued working this job, were it not for the arrival of Covid-19. He didn’t get infected, but being housed in Sungei Tengah Lodge, he was stuck when the entire dormitory was slapped with a quarantine order in early April 2020. Bulbul couldn’t go out to work anymore.
By the time the quarantine was lifted, his Work Permit had expired. It couldn’t be renewed because it had been issued under the Temporary Job Scheme and the police investigation had concluded. It is thus time to go home, he says, happy enough one way or another.
One can scarcely imagine taking on a job as scary and morbid as this. But Bulbul, throughout our interview, is cheerful and easygoing, eager to share his experiences with me, even laughing as he recounts several humourous incidents that occurred. Never once did he feel scared, he says — in fact, he came to be genuinely fond of his vocation.
Scrolling through his phone, he proudly shows me a veritable collection of photographs that he had accumulated of well-preserved remains that he had carefully unearthed, proof of his many months of hard labour. It is people like him — people who possess the courage and spirit to take on such a daunting job on a whim and with a smile –who make sure that our loved ones’ remains are respectfully and carefully attended to when they are given their last send-off, who keep our cemeteries running so that we can continue to bury our dead and conduct their last rites the way that they would want us to. They pass unseen among us, the keepers of our dead.