Commentary: As Singapore ages, what can we do to make death less scary?

Commentary: As Singapore ages, what can we do to make death less scary?
Commentary: As Singapore ages, what can we do to make death less scary?

DEATH AND RELIGION IN SINGAPORE

In Singapore, our reaction to death appears to be one mixed with religious beliefs and modern “solutions”. Even though we have not gone as far as freezing heads, technology now plays a big part in working to extend and improve the quality of our lives – step counters, sleep monitors and health screening are just some examples of this.

But underneath the glossy layer of medicalisation, beliefs and practices in the afterlife still play a significant role in many individuals’ worldviews of death.

Together with Kit Ying Lye and Janice Kam at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, we recently completed a project documenting Chinese religious funeral practices in Singapore.

We interviewed funeral directors as well as members of the public, and found a noticeable level of continuity that culture and religion play when it comes to dealing with death.

Funeral rituals, especially, often remain highly symbolic in retaining the individuality of the deceased and transferring their status from elder to ancestor.

THE ROLE OF ARTS AND COMMUNITY IN TACKLING DEATH TABOOS

Community initiatives can also make death less scary. In Singapore, these initiatives are often spearheaded by a rising generation of funeral directors, artists and civil society activists who are not afraid to discuss death in the public domain.

Research by anthropologist Jill J Tan has shown how a decade-long project like “Both Sides, Now” by ArtsWok Collaborative (together with Drama Box until 2022) has engaged seniors all over Singapore to develop art and have conversations based on “living well” and “leaving well.”

Then there are also campaigns such as Dying to Talk and Living Wishes by students of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) that encourage people to speak to their parents about death at home.

Similar projects are at work around the world like The Good Grief Festival in the United Kingdom, which seeks to bring artists, scholars and writers together to explore different facets of death in modern society. Here, panellists do not just talk about death in an abstract, biological way, but really consider death from sympathetic, creative viewpoints that in some ways, gives life to death.

Death is never easy to talk about, think about, or even engage emotionally with. But unless we want to live life in fear of death, we must become more creative about taming death.

The answers to this are not just in science and technology, but in the things that make us human – our creativity, empathy and emotions.

Terence Heng is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool. His new co-edited book, Death and the Afterlife: Multidisciplinary Perspectives in a Global City (Routledge 2024), will be launched at the National Library of Singapore in June.

 
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