Columbariums in Penang, Malaysia

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Wall of Niches From the Batu Gantong Columbarium
A Columbarium is a vault or building having niches or boxes for funeral urns and other pertinent genealogical data about the deceased, including photos. On the island of Penang, it is a very popular alternative to burying deceased persons due to the lack of space in the current cemeteries and the high price of land. Earlier deceased persons ended up in cemeteries with gravestones; later deceased persons were cremated and ended up in columbariums. A person may also find columbarium boxes in temples, as well as in additions to regular cemeteries.

Having conducted research in Penang, and because of the following reasons, I can declare that columbarium boxes were the single most beneficial genealogical source for those I assisted in their genealogical research:

  • Columbariums are indoors or in protected places and easier to get to, and they have aged much better than the gravestones in Penang.
  • They have much genealogical information on them, including photos of the deceased. In many cases, the information presented is different or more than what is in the written records for the box and urn.
  • Graveyards are overgrown, or the landscape changes from year to year, and it is very difficult to find gravestones of specific persons buried there.
  • In a columbarium, there is usually an office that one can go to to obtain a box number or other information about the deceased.
  • The Chinese are afraid of the cemeteries and many go only once a year during "Tomb Sweepings" month, which is in early April. Here is a partial listing of columbariums in Penang and some detail on location and access.

1. Kek Lok Si Columbarium—This columbarium has four floors of columbarium boxes and an elevator to get from floor to floor. Each direction of the compass in this building has boxes. Although one may explore throughout the building, in order to find out more information from the office of the Kek Lok Si, one must fax or send a request letter addressed to the Abbott, including a statement that you are a descendant of the deceased. The Columbarium is located a short distance south of the Kek Lok Si Temple complex.

2. Beow Hiang Lim Temple—Adjacent to this temple in Air Itam, Penang, are two buildings full of columbarium boxes. One may apply to the temple office on the property for further information regarding more recent deaths, and personnel there can often provide a box number and will help you locate specific boxes. The temple and columbarium are located on the left side of Jalan Bukit Bendera as you go towards Penang Hill and the railway station.

3. The Hokkien Batu Gantong Columbarium—This Columbarium has nearly 31,000 boxes. It is an overwhelming sight. Their office is located at 161 Jalan Batu Gantong, separate from the Columbarium, and the Columbarium is on a different section of the same street. 

Front of an Opaque Columbarium Box With Full Genealogical Information
4. Buddhist Thai Temple—
This Columbarium has a room of boxes underneath the reclining Buddha, more on the back wall, and more boxes in another separate building, which is off to the right when facing the entrance to the Reclining Buddha building. This temple is located on Burma Lane, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.

5. Kwang Tung—Mt. Erskine Cantonese Columbarium—There is a large building on the property which houses an impressive collection of columbarium boxes. Equipment is provided to access those boxes which are very high on the wall. This columbarium is located on the east side of the Mt. Erskine Road, across from the Chinese cemeteries.

6. Kong Tong Columbarium—This is a smaller columbarium on Penang Hill. It is kept locked, but we were able to find someone associated with the temple nearby who had a key.

7. Khoo Kongsi Columbarium—Built in 1999, this is a newer Columbarium adjacent to the Sin Kang Khoo Clan Cemetery and currently has only 287 spaces occupied with 300 more reserved; however, it has the capacity to house many deceased members or spouses and unmarried female clan members of the Khoo surname. It is located in Bandar Baru Ayer Itam also known as Farlim.

8. Heong Giam Si Temple—This temple has a room for columbarium boxes. A specific box may be accessed by applying to the keeper of the records. His records are quite complete and may often contain the place in China where the deceased came from or where that person’s ancestors came from in China. It is located at 262 Jalan Air Itam, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.

9. Kelawai Catholic Cemetery—This cemetery has an outdoor columbarium wall of niches for deceased Roman Catholics, most of whom were parishioners of the Church of the Immaculate Conception. It is located off Kelawai Road in Pulau Tikus, Georgetown, Penang.

10. Western Road Cemetery—This cemetery on Jalan Utama has a building on the property which houses columbarium boxes for both Catholics and Protestants regardless of nationality. Many of the fronts of the boxes have rather complete genealogical data.

11. Berapit Crematorium in Bukit Mertajam—This columbarium is large and is part of the cemetery by the same name. It is located on the mainland, but is still considered to be in Penang. It is located on Jalan Berapit, Bukit Mertajam, Penang, Malaysia.

12. Paya Terubong Columbarium—The construction of this United Hokkien columbarium is in progress and when completed will have 5 floors of niches. Date of completion has been proposed for mid-2014. Located on Jalan Paya Terubong, this columbarium is rumored to have nearly 40,000 niches.

We have been told that there is a movement going on to minimize the information placed on columbarium boxes. They are leaving off the names of descendants and just putting words like "many children and grandchildren." If true, this would be a terrible loss to genealogists.

Submitted October 28, 2013