SINGAPORE -- The retired factory worker nervously approached the top-floor railing and gasped at the cemetery's sweeping panorama of skyscrapers and lush parks stretching to the sea.
With cremated remains of colleagues in colorful niches behind him, Wong Heng Tai, 73, told his family the prospect of eternity in a high-rise was more reassuring than burial in a graveyard.
"The higher one's remains are placed, the closer he is to heaven," he said.
Land is at such a premium in tiny Singapore that government officials are hoping to replace many cemetery plots with final resting places in a new nine-story pagoda.
"We are very sensitive to the way people feel about death," said Chia Mia Chiang, head of environmental health, who spent three years huddled with engineers trying to reconcile traditional burial customs with the realities of a space-starved society.
Superstitious Singaporeans, fearful of bad luck, shy away from keeping urns in their homes. Apartment living precludes sprinkling ashes in private gardens.
In constructing the green-and-white, nondenominational pagoda in a park where low blocks of columbariums are filled to capacity, Chia said he is carefully evaluating reaction to the facility.
If favorable, soaring columbaria may solve the problem of accommodating 12,000 annual deaths in the island nation of 2.6 million and start a new trend in ash storage.
"We've tried to address traditional beliefs surrounding death and the practical necessity of space for the living," Chia said. Cremations have increased to 62 percent in the past 15 years, but officials emphasize that is not sufficient.
Ten government cemeteries are full. While Chia said land has been set aside "well into the next century" for those whose religions prohibit cremation, only one official cemetery still is open to others, predominantly Buddhists and Christians.
Bodies in some of the few private burial grounds, including a Jewish cemetery, have been exhumed to make way for a new subway system and housing projects.
Price also discourages burials. Burial with a metal coffin, embalming and fees runs up to $3,000, compared with $210 for a niche. Cremation, an urn and a marble slab sealing the 18-by-14-inch opening adds only another $120.
In death as in life, however, there is no assurance of room at the top. There are no bookings in advance of demise, annoying those who wish to reserve an upper-floor spot in the pagoda.
"This is only fair," Chia said. The social or professional standing of the deceased carried no clout, either, he said. Niches are allotted sequentially starting with the ground level. For an additional $125 fee, relatives have a "first-come, first-served" choice among all the floors.
Since the pagoda opened in November there has been a stampede for the higher stories and niches, which are regarded as auspicious.