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Accepted Paper:

Dead bodies and the body-politic: the everyday life of a Singaporean cemetery in the midst of its destruction  
Ruth Toulson (Maryland Institute College of Art)

Paper short abstract:

In Singapore, the state intends to destroy every cemetery but one. This paper examines politicized everyday life in a cemetery under clearance, probing responses to exhumation, from concern for loss of heritage and urban green space, to terror should destroying graves turn ancestors into ghosts.

Paper long abstract:

In Singapore, the state has announced their intention to destroy every cemetery but one. Even at the cemetery that remains, plots are guaranteed for a mere fifteen years. Each year, more bodies are exhumed than are interred and thus, little by little, the land set aside for burial shrinks. The razing of cemeteries, I argue, has become a quotidian strategy of political power. The Singaporean state is not alone in politicizing cemetery landscapes. Throughout history, corpses have been exhumed to rewrite the past, and burial places have justified redrawing national boundaries. The Singaporean example differs, however, as the bodies this state puts to use are those of ordinary people, not of political leaders or war dead. This incessant cycle of exhumation occurs not in the context of violent regime change, but as the everyday action of a stable secular state.This paper, drawing on long-term fieldwork in the Singaporean funeral industry, examines day-to-day life in a cemetery undergoing destruction. Some visitors to the cemetery come in terror, believing that digging up graves turns ancestors into ghosts. Others see the cemetery as a valuable heritage site or a green public space in a dense city. Protest against the cemetery’s clearance is muted, with incongruent perspectives narrowing into one that aligns with state discourse and excludes concern for ancestors.While cemeteries have been read as a reflection of the past, of memory materialized, here I argue, they are predictive vectors, illuminating increasingly fractured and politicized relationships between the living and the dead.

Panel Mora04a
Life at the cemetery I
  Session 1 Monday 29 March, 2021, -