All's quiet at the graveyard… most times (The Straits Times)

Caretakers, vendors and visitors add colour to Choa Chu Kang burial ground

TWO weeks after families descended on Choa Chu Kang Cemetery during Qing Ming, or the Tomb Sweeping Festival, all that is left in Singapore’s largest burial ground is quietness.

Heavy vehicles roll along the main road, but their roaring engines are muted by the thick foliage surrounding the graveyard.

Along this expanse, graves sprout from the ground by the thousand, from armchair-shaped Chinese tombs to crosses and figures of Mother Mary in the Christian and Catholic burial grounds.

The spotlight was cast on the people who work or live on these grounds, after a cemetery worker admitted in court on Monday to raping a girl who was staying at the cemetery with her homeless family in 2012.

The regulars at this workplace less ordinary are workers in the administrative office run by the National Environment Agency, grave diggers, caretakers and sellers of flowers or drinks.

A mosque and chapel also stand in the cemetery.

Those interviewed said it is mostly quiet, but a few said they have come across the odd individual, usually a foreign worker, who sleeps in the cemetery at night.

They might take shelter in pavilion-like shelters in the Muslim cemetery, they added.

“Sometimes, workers come from Batam and stay in the cemetery for one or two weeks,” said a caretaker who did not want to be named.

For Ms Aminah Ismail, 50, who helps her aunt man a flower stall five days a week, work starts almost as soon as the sun rises.

“My shop opens at 7am and closes at 5pm,” said Ms Aminah in Malay. “I sell about seven bunches of flowers a day for $2 each.”

Like her, other flower sellers sit under a large umbrella next to a small table on which flowers such as orchids and sunflowers are displayed. These stalls add some life to the otherwise dull area dotted with grey tombstones.

Next to the Muslim Cemetery Path 17 is a colourful workers’ lodge, a contrast to the sombre appearance of the graves.

Most lodgers here are foreign construction workers who work nearby, but some also spruce up graves during the weekends for a fee of about $5 to $10.

For Mr Ahmad Kebon, however, cleaning graves is a full-time job. The 60-year-old former cleaner has been working every day as a self-employed grave caretaker for the past three years.

He maintains 15 graves, starting work at 9am and ending at 6pm. He can earn about $1,500 a month, almost double what he used to earn as a cleaner.

“I mainly tend to the grass around the grave,” he said. “If (the gravestone) is damaged, I will patch it up by painting or fixing it.”

Mr Ahmad Kebon, who has a daughter and lives in Bukit Batok, has no plans to retire yet. “I enjoy working here. It’s very quiet and nobody disturbs me,” he said.

Mr Ahmad Kebon is not the only one who works on the graves.

Mr Ahmad Paku, 50, has been working there for 20 years as a gravestone-maker. He works on one or two graves a day on average.

Before this, he worked as a machine repairman for a Japanese company in Singapore. “I decided to work in the cemetery after my previous company moved to Malaysia,” he said.

Another familiar face at the Muslim cemetery is a 70-year-old man who has been selling bottled water and snacks like the Super Ring cheese rings there for more than 20 years.

“I used to stay at the Lim Chu Kang kampung, that’s why I chose to work here,” said the man who gave his name only as Mr Koh. “More people visit the Muslim cemetery, so I sell my goods here. I have regular customers.”

Besides those who work there, there are also regular visitors like Mr Abdul Kader, 65, who visits his wife’s grave once a month.

“I’ll buy flowers when I visit. I live around Bedok Reservoir, so I usually take (bus service) 172 from Boon Lay. Sometimes, I cycle from home to get here,” said the part-time forklift driver.

Another regular is a retiree in her 60s, who gave her name only as Madam Ong.

She drops by to visit her mother’s grave in the Christian cemetery about three times a week, and brings food each time for a dog she has grown fond of.

She first noticed the mongrel, which she named Floral, four years ago, when it was sitting beside a dustbin.

“Somehow, she always finds me when I come here,” said Madam Ong of the dog, which she estimated to be 41/2 years old.

“She’s very clever – she will run away from people who try and catch her,” she added.

Despite the size and emptiness of the cemetery, Madam Ong said she does not feel lonely with Floral around.

“She is a good dog. She always takes care of me when I stay here till after dark,” she said.

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