Lasers, iPods, for a Singapore funeral of a lifetime

SINGAPORE Mon May 17, 2010 9:31am BST

A worker arranges altar tablets which light up at the tap of an access keycard at the Nirvana Memorial Garden columbarium in Singapore May 15, 2010. REUTERS/Edgar Su

A worker arranges altar tablets which light up at the tap of an access keycard at the Nirvana Memorial Garden columbarium in Singapore May 15, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Edgar Su

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SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - Death need not be a grim affair, especially for the living, and at a new columbarium in Singapore, the deceased can depart, rock concert style.

Unlike most traditional Buddhist funeral ceremonies that follow cremation, there is no incense and no monks offering prayers at the Nirvana Memorial Garden columbarium, where the urns holding the remains of the dead are stored.

Instead, curtains draw automatically to reveal the deceased's urn which is placed atop a pedestal, machine-generated smoke fills the prayer hall and a booming recorded voice, accompanied by chants, speaks words of comfort and talks about death.

The columbarium boasts a $2 million (1.4 million pound) sound and light system. Its resident Buddha statue pulsate gently with LED lights and, as a final touch, a ray of bright white light shines on the urn of the deceased symbolising the ascent to heaven.

"This is just 60 percent of what we can offer," said Jessie Ong, who works for Nirvana Memorial, the company that runs the columbarium. "We are still fine tuning the laser lights."

Most columbariums are dark, eerie places, with floors littered with incense ash and urns piled high to the ceiling in tiny pigeonholes, each adorned with a picture of the deceased.

But in Nirvana Memorial, luxury and space are aplenty.

"This is not a place for people to come only once a year to visit their parents or relatives, we want to create an environment to encourage them to come as often as possible," Jeff Kong, director of Nirvana Memorial Singapore, told Reuters.

The so-called "six star" columbarium is Singapore's first luxury final resting place and the brainchild of Malaysian-based NV Multi Corp which has other similar projects in Southeast Asia.

Buddhism is the most followed religion in Singapore, with over 40 percent of the population declaring themselves believers, according to the latest census. Most of these practice a form of the religion that incorporates elements of Taoism and traditional Chinese faiths.

The 11,200 square metre (120,600 sq ft) columbarium is fully air-conditioned and carpeted, with a skylit lobby and an indoor car park.

After it is fully opened in 2011, the $22 million facility will host up to 50,000 niches for urns spread across 11 suites designed with feng shui elements in mind.

Each of the suites also feature lounges furnished with sofas and rosewood furniture for families to rest when they visit. To access the niches, families are given electronic keycards.

The company plans to open a restaurant in the columbarium as well as set up a system to send electronic reminders to families to pay their respects to their relatives on death anniversaries and birthdays.

The price of such luxury, however, does not come cheap.

Compared to a state-run facility which costs close to $360 for a single niche, prices here start at $22,000 for a double niche in the Royal Suite and $93,000 for a cubicle that stores up to 32 urns in the Family Suite.

There are also "economy" class niches that range from $2,200, and the facility accepts payment in instalments.

Madam Goh, a woman in her 60s who only gave her family name, bought a niche for herself at the facility and said the investment was worth it.

"This place is clean, comfortable and much less eerie than the traditional columbariums," she said.

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)

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