Culture

Why This Cemetery Tour Guide Finds Peace Among the Dead

“Some go out to party and drink. But for me, I want total silence where it’s just between me and nature...sometimes I have this unexplainable urge to go [to the cemetery].”
Frankie Lantican
Singapore
October 27, 2020, 5:00am
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Jo Rachatitipong. Photo: Frankie Lantican

People have different ways of unwinding when the going gets tough. Some go for a run, others might meditate. But what about visiting cemeteries late into the night? The idea of that might send shivers down most peoples’ spines but this content creator in Singapore finds it rather therapeutic.

30-year-old Jo Rachatitipong has a passion for graveyards. Upon exploring them, he learned about the exhumation process and was inspired to help people learn more about it by conducting night tours of cemeteries. One night in October, he explored the Lim Chu Kang cemetery on the west side of Singapore, just weeks before Halloween.

It was 10 p.m. and the silhouettes of the tombstones scattered across the graveyard stood out in the dark night. The view looked straight out of a horror film. It would have been dead silent if it weren’t for the sound of crickets chirping and stray dogs barking.

Rachatitipong started exploring cemeteries at the age of 13 due to his insatiable curiosity.

“I like to find out things that science cannot tell me whether it’s true or not,” he told VICE.

Then, all he wanted was to know if he could see anything spooky.

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RACHATITIPONG TREATS NIGHT WALKS AT CEMETERIES LIKE WALKS IN THE PARK. PHOTO: FRANKIE LANTICAN

“When we are young, we are told certain things are the way they are but once you reach the age of reason, you start to question things. I wanted to find out if those things [the supernatural] really exist,” he said.

But today, he has a different reason for visiting.

“Back then, I came here always looking for something. Now, I come here and it just feels so peaceful.”

“I can’t explain but it just connected with me. Now, I come here just to relax.”

For him, visiting cemeteries is a way to relieve his stress.

“People handle their emotions differently. Some go out to party and drink. But for me, I want total silence where it’s just between me and nature,” he said. “But it’s not just when I’m stressed. Sometimes I have this unexplainable urge to go [to the cemetery] so I just go.”

So on those days, he drives out to the cemetery, pulls out a stool, and sits there for a good hour, pondering everything about life and death.

“It all comes back to this place. All of us are rushing for our careers or for whatever reason, but this is where we’ll end up,” he said, gesturing to the tombstones behind him.

“I used to be scared of death but then you realize that everyone’s got to go. If you know that death is part and parcel of life, then you’ll start to embrace death.”

Rachatitipong also pointed to his maternal grandfather, a Taoist master, who he said might have influenced his affinity for cemeteries.

“I feel like it runs in our blood,” he said.

Rachatitipong’s mother was initially scared about the unconventional hobby he had developed and didn’t want him to be attracted to the paranormal. But he assured her that nothing would happen to him and soon enough, she came around. Some people, on the other hand, still think it’s strange.

“They think I’m crazy. They think ‘Why does this fella go to cemeteries instead of clubs?’”

But Rachatitipong doesn’t care.

“Everyone has a different hobby. As long as I know I’m not doing anything bad and that I’m influencing people’s knowledge [about cemeteries], I think it’s still healthy.”

He has fond memories of visiting the same cemetery with his friends when he was a teen.

“We would buy Coke and snacks like Pringles. Then we would just sit down to chit-chat and laugh until the rooster crowed in the early morning,” he said.

While his friends were there just to hang out, he was always fascinated with graveyards and recalled a time when he strayed away from his friends without even realizing.

“Suddenly, a lorry turned and the headlights shone into my eyes. That was when I woke up and I realized they [my friends] have been calling out for me the whole time, but I never heard them.”

Now, he knows every corner of the 2-square kilometer cemetery.

Before the pandemic, Rachatitipong would conduct cemetery night tours about twice a week. He limits the group size to four people because of his limited car space. Most of the people attracted to his tour are drawn to what’s different and unusual.

“When they hear the phrase ‘cemetery tour,’ people see it as an interesting dare. Like a once in a lifetime thing,” he said.

All his tours come with a few simple rules. As a sign of respect to the dead, there should be no pointing with index fingers and use of foul language. Visitors should also never call each other by their names, as he said this could give upset ghosts the opportunity to attach to their body.

As Rachatitipong walked through the graveyard, he apologized to each tombstone for disturbing them. He emphasized that it was important to respect the dead even though they were no longer living.

“You would not want someone to step into your house without permission,” he explained.

Some gravestones were more intricately decorated and cleaner than others. Rachatitipong said that this was because of the Qingming Festival (aka Tomb-Sweeping Day), an event every April whereby families visit their ancestors' graves to pay their respects. Oftentimes, they will clean the graves and offer food to the dead. But some of the dead no longer have family who visit, so people from the temples burn incense for them.

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Flowers lead to a grave. Photo: Frankie Lantican

Some families, meanwhile, choose to exhume the bodies and have them cremated. Upon spotting a grave that had been excavated, Rachatitipong explained the exhumation process. Families typically hire funeral services to conduct it, he said.

“They will come here and pray, light joysticks, and explain to the deceased person that their grave is going to be excavated,” Rachatitipong explained.

The funeral service will then pray to Tudigong, also known as the earth deity, to pay their respects and seek permission before they start digging into the earth to excavate the deceased.

Once the workers begin digging and they see the coffin, they will send an excavator down to open it.

“After prying open the coffin — with no gloves or face masks or anything, just bare hands — they go inside the coffin,” Rachatitipong explained. “The reason why they do this is so they can feel for all the bones.”

The bones are then collected, packed into a bag, and carried out with a paper umbrella.

“The logic is that it [the remains] cannot be seen by the moon.”

The remains are then sent off for cremation so that the family members can later collect the urn.

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Rachatitipong knows the Lim Chu Kang cemetery like the back of his hand. Photo: Frankie Lantican

Rachatitipong’s passion may seem morbid to some but he said it has helped him look at life more optimistically, something many people struggle to do.

“We all die anyways so why not laugh and smile more in life?”