6 feet of separation
Our reporter witnesses exhumation of his step-grandmother's tomb at Bukit Brown cemetery
The grave digger held up a piece of bone caked in mud and started to speak to me in Hokkien.
Surprised, I turned to my uncle for help.
They also managed to find pieces of my step-grandmother's skull and fragments of bone from her legs, he told me.
Last Wednesday was the first time I ever saw my step-grandmother.
And probably the last.
She was buried at Bukit Brown cemetery on Dec 23, 1943.
There were no photos of her on the tombstone or any of the dusty photo albums my relatives kept in their storerooms.
So even though I have been visiting her 71-year-old grave for as long as I can remember, I hardly knew anything about her.
Only that I had to swat mosquitoes while my maternal uncles and aunts burned joss paper and cleaned up the gravestone during the Qing Ming (or tomb sweeping) Festival.
But the construction of a new dual four-lane road meant her tomb and 4,152 others have been or are slated to be exhumed.
When I asked my first uncle if he felt it was a pity, he shrugged and said: "If the Government wants (the grave) to be moved, there's nothing we can do."
Despite losing part of a historic landmark, and a pit stop on my family's Qing Ming itinerary, it was not a complete loss.
Talking to my aunt while my uncle settled the paperwork, I discovered a chapter of family history I never had thought about asking.
The second of three wives, my step-grandmother gave birth to my first uncle before dying 19 days later.
So my grandfather, whose first wife was still in China, married my step-grandmother's sister - my grandmother.
This way, someone could take care of my infant first uncle. My complicated family history had slowly started to unravel.
The exhumation itself was a simple affair.
My uncle and aunt paid their respects.
And after an officer from the Land Transport Authority (LTA) confirmed the tomb was indeed my step-grandmother's, the digging began.
My uncle and aunt waited in the car, for it is considered unlucky for family members to see the first grains of soil unearthed.
I looked away.
The grave digger assigned to the plot said he usually takes an hour to get to the coffin.
My step-grandmother's grave was probably shallower than some of the older ones, as she was buried during the Japanese Occupation, he said.
"Last week, I had to dig up a grave dating back to 1929. That one took me more than two hours," he said, indicating the depth of the grave.
"That was probably more than six feet," he added.
After almost an hour of digging, he paused and pointed to a layer of black soil.
He said the soil was used to cover the coffin during burial, and my step-grandmother's had most likely rotted.
He was right.
The first thing they unearthed was a porcelain tea cup, intact and gleaming white against the brown of the dirt.
A volunteer from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies cleaned it and took some photos for the record.
As I left to call my uncle and aunt over, a few other grave diggers started to pitch a tent over the grave (it is believed the dead cannot be exposed to the sky), as they looked for the remains of my step-grandmother.
When I returned, they had also uncovered a pair of coins and a silver earring that had been buried with her.
Later in the car, my aunt, looking impressed, said: "They must be really skilled to be able to find something so small."
According to custom, my step-grandmother's remains were then washed with rice wine and placed in a white bag.
My aunt said the wine was for "sterilising" the remains.
They were then put in a plastic box along with the other items found in the grave.
Sheltered by a wooden paper umbrella, my uncle carried the remains to the LTA site office near the cemetery gate.
The umbrella was to prevent the spirit from dispersing, my uncle said.
There, the remains were placed on a table with 18 other boxes, the number of exhumed graves for the day.
She was cremated at Choa Chu Kang Columbarium later in the day.
We took her ashes to the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery at Bright Hill Road, and placed it in an urn. Following a brief prayer, the urn was put in a niche.
A weight seemed to have been lifted from my uncle's shoulders. He told me later that he had trouble sleeping the previous night.
Heaving a sigh of relief, he said: "I've waited a long time for this, since last year (when he got the exhumation date).
"I'm glad it all went smoothly."