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Rites of passage

On average, 55 people in Singapore die every day. About 20,000 died in Singapore last year. Unpleasant as it sounds, death is a business, and one that is changing. As attitudes evolve and the profession offers new ways to mourn, three funeral service providers in Singapore share how their trade has developed.

Three funeral service providers share how their profession has changed with the times.

Undertaker Roland Tay with daughter Jenny at Direct Funeral Services' showroom in Geylang Bahru.

"I see myself in it for the long term. That's how much it has touched me." - Ang Chin Moh CEO Deborah Andres. Behind her is the new eco-friendly willow casket.

Hindu Casket manager Roy Selvarajah sees more younger Hindus beginning to tweak some of the funeral practices for their grandparents and parents, which was unheard of 10 to 15 years ago.

SINCE taking over the business in 2014 from her father, famed undertaker Roland Tay,Jenny Tayhas turned Direct Funeral Services (DFS) into a professionally run business "with a heart".

And it's no secret where she inherits that compunction from. For as long as Ms Tay can remember, her father has been well known - and he still is - for his compassion and generosity. Mr Tay, now 71, routinely arranges funerals - many at his own cost - for the elderly poor, the needy, and victims of accidents and crime.

Echoing her father's staunch belief, Ms Tay, 31, says the same standard of service should be "accorded to all levels of the community, whether rich or poor".

DFS is but one of 200 enterprises in Singapore making a living from people dying. Speaking from her showroom in Geylang Bahru, Ms Tay says: "Many people tend to think that this is a lucrative business, even during the economic downturn. After all, nothing is certain but death and taxes, right?

"But that's not true. Some clients may go for the more elaborate packages and default on payment later. Others request for instalment payment when they discover that they were unable to pay. The death business is just like any other business."

But also, as with other businesses, there is potential for growth. Since taking over the management three years ago, Ms Tay has tripled the company's revenue from S$2 million to S$7 million a year according to the 2015 audited numbers.

DFS now handles an average of 100 to 120 cases a month (that's an average of three to four funerals a day). Pricing for its basic funeral packages has remained the same for the past 10 years (see amendment note). But it wasn't easy. With a father who is well respected among practitioners in the industry, Ms Tay had to prove her mettle.

"I've been working very hard to maintain the business - constantly bringing in new innovative elements and upgrading our services, not just for the company, but for the industry - all so I can create a legacy for my father," she says.

"I'm not afraid of competition. It encourages improvement across the industry. In the last two years, other funeral companies are also offering additional services and more transparent packages," she adds.

Not wanting to change the entire business DNA built by her father, Ms Tay says she is "merely building upon it". She and her husband Darren Cheng, 32, have also moved the company forward with the times, introducing employment benefits, career progression and better accreditation to the industry.

"When I took over, we observed and worked the ground with our staff for about a year, before making changes. It's very important to do things gradually. Nobody's going to listen if you come in with guns blazing and demanding immediate change," she says.

To give her staff a more professional look, she ditched the polo-tee-and-jeans outfit from before and replaced it with a shirt-and-vest uniform. She also developed an in-house iPad app that allows the funeral directors to schedule funerals and send orders to the head office.

"Previously, funerals were all very haphazardly done. The rites were carried out by someone dressed casually, reading off a script and directing mourners through the motions in an offhand manner.

"I always believe that funerals should be conducted with dignity. Anyone would want that for a loved one who has passed on.

"While we continue to hold on to the traditions, the rites and rituals, we also offer new services to better meet customers' evolving needs."

The industry's hiring practices have changed too. Her father had insisted on hiring "ready made" workers with experience, not newbies.

"He used to tell me that it was very hard to find young workers my age and that no young person would want to be in this business. He said it would be easier to attract those already in the business with higher salaries, but I beg to differ," she says.

"Today, I see a lot more younger people keen to join the funeral business, especially more women. My emphasis is education. If you have the right education to prepare you for this service, then you would not hesitate to be part of it."

She says DFS receives about two to three applications a week from fresh graduates or millennials wanting to make a career switch.

"This is a huge jump from three years ago when we would get one applicant in three months," she says, adding that the same is happening with other funeral services companies. DFS and its group of companies (including specialist businesses such as Hindu Casket) now have about 65 staff.

To ensure that there is continual training, her company has rolled out a management trainee programme to help train and retain potential employees.

She has also taken a page from the book of Japanese and Taiwanese funeral directors by engaging professional masters of ceremonies (MCs) to give eulogies at funerals.

"As Chinese, many of us are not articulate when it comes to expressing our feelings towards a loved one, particularly one who had just passed on. We have these MCs to speak on their behalf and this was well received by many of our clients.

"Death is an important part in a person's life. It is the final leg. So, instead of mourning the loved one's passing, why not celebrate his or her life? If we're paying so much attention to the details of a wedding or the birth of a baby, why can't we do the same for a wake?

"The technical know-how of conducting a funeral can be taught. But it's nothing without the right attitude and sincerity - the two most important things in this business."

In the last 40 years, Roland Tay has handled the funerals of some of Singapore's most high-profile murder victims - pro bono. They include eight-year-old Chinese national Huang Na, whose tiny, decomposing body was found stuffed into a cardboard box, and 22-year-old Chinese national Liu Hong Mei, whose dismembered remains were found in Kallang River.

Says Ms Tay: "Stories about his pro bono cases always struck a chord in me. Although he has handed the business over to me and Darren, he hasn't fully retired. He still handles the pro bono cases - something he is very passionate about."

But Ms Tay, her husband and her father never see charity as a requisite to chalk up Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) points.

"It comes from our heart when we try to help, even if that means doing pro bono work," she says.

"When you look at it holistically, funerals are about being part of a community. In that sense, we are providing an essential service and not a business per se. We serve families and clients in one of their most vulnerable moments and this makes what we do very important."

Amendment note: An earlier version of this article stated that DFS' pricing for its funeral packages have remained the same for the past 10 years, ranging from S$4,999 toS$8,288, depending on the rites and ritual. DFS has clarified that only the price for its basic funeral has remained the same for the past 10 years.

A new era at Singapore's oldest funeral service provider

DO NOT call the funeral business an industry. That's Ang Chin Moh CEO Deborah Andres' pet peeve.

"We do not manufacture anything, so we're not an industry. We provide an essential service," says Ms Andres,a Cuban-born, Canadian national.

"I wouldn't even call it a lucrative business either because the overhead is usually more than the revenue. This is a calling, a life-changing career and not simply a 9-5, punch-in, punch-out job.

"Someone has to provide a service with dignity and respect for the grieving families."

A seasoned professional in funeral services, Ms Andres, 56, joined Singapore's oldest funeral service provider Ang Chin Moh in 2014 and became its chief executive two years later. She took over from Ang Ziqian, its fourth-generation funeral director.

Benefiting the community

Mr Ang, who is an active member of the United States National Funeral Directors Association (USNFDA), had met Ms Andres at one of the association's meetings. He was impressed by her wide experience in the funeral care sector.

He says: "The move to hire Debbie is in the direction Ang Chin Moh is taking, which is to continually professionalise the company and staff. Having a professional like Debbie enhances the breadth and depth of our company's talents as she brings with her innovations and knowledge that benefits our community.

The family-owned business was established in 1912.

Mr Ang, the deputy chairman of Ang Chin Moh Group, says: "Responsible leadership is about succession planning and grooming the next generation of leaders. There is a time we lead, and there is also a time when we step back and assist the next leader to lead. "That is why I have chosen to step down from the role of CEO, and allow new leadership to advance the company into the next level of growth for our employees and the community we serve. . . . (It also) allows me to devote more time to the philanthropic activities of the Ang Chin Moh Foundation."

As CEO, Ms Andres aims to professionalise the business, upgrade staff skills and improve standards for the community.

Last year, the company sponsored one of Singapore's youngest embalmers Shane Teo, then 27, for a three-month course at the prestigious William Purves Embalming Academy in Scotland, to pick up the latest techniques in facial reconstruction.

Mr Teo had earlier joined Ang Chin Moh as a human resource executive, even though he really wanted to be an embalmer.

After about a year, the company allowed him to shadow its two senior embalmers for nine months. He is now an embalming apprentice at Ang Chin Moh and has treated some 280 bodies.

Ms Andres is no stranger to the business.

With over 14 years at the USNFDA, the world's leading association of funeral directors, under her belt,she wasthe "right woman for the job", Mr Ang felt.

Ms Andres says: "I have been to Asia and have an overview of some of the rites and rituals and was intrigued . . . So when I was given the opportunity to work in Singapore, I knew it was going to be challenging. It was also going to be a sharp learning experience, so I accepted."

The funeral profession is one where "you learn from the ground up", she says, so she got "down and dirty" with the rest of the staff.

She instituted a rule that everyone at Ang Chin Moh has to wear a uniform, herself included. "I tell my staff to be proud of what they do and not be ashamed. So to be equally proud, I wear the same uniform, too."

She adds that the CEO even serves coffee to bereaved families. She would also constantly ask her staff this question at least once a month: Why are you here?

"It sets them thinking about being compassionate, about listening. We also encourage them to give suggestions to improve the service."

Compassion and care

Her most vivid memory was that of a three-year-old girl who had died and her body was to be repatriated to her home country.

"Her mother had told one of the staff that her daughter was afraid of the dark and that she didn't want her to be alone.

"What the staff member did next was amazing - he sat next to the casket all night, keeping the girl company just so she didn't have to be alone. That is what the business of death is all about: compassion and care for the living."

With increased awareness came innovation and new products.

Ang Chin Moh recently introduced eco-friendly willow caskets, crafted using fast- growing willow, a sustainable product that is 100 per cent biodegradable. The interior lining is made from unbleached, natural cotton and there are no metal parts.

"Green funerals are practised all over the world and in recent years in Singapore, we have seen an increased awareness about protecting our environment generally, making it timely to launch now. We also had several enquiries about eco-friendly funerals."

Ms Andres assures that there is no difference in the religious rites when using the willow casket. "The eco-casket is suitable for cremation and burial. When it's buried, it will disintegrate naturally within two to three years."

Ms Andres, who started her working life in defence after getting a degree in police technology, says she does not think she will ever leave the funeral service business.

"I see myself in it for the long term. That's how much it has touched me, and the people I meet on the way have reinforced the respect for my profession.

"Funeral directors overseas are the first ones who usually volunteer their time. Take the 9/11 attack of 2001 for instance. When the police and firemen had left, it was funeral directors who were sieving through the rubble. I hope the funeral directors here will also band together to serve the community."

Hindu practices given respectful modern tweaks

THE Hindu funeral is largely dictated by ancient traditional customs and religious rites, stemming from a belief in reincarnation. But younger Hindus are starting to tweak some practices when they seek funeral services for their grandparents and parents.

According to Hindu funeral customs, the body remains at the home until it is cremated, which is usually within 24 hours after death.

That has changed, says Roy Selvarajah,the 56-year-old manager of Hindu Casket. Many younger Hindus are not even resting the deceased loved ones at home. They would rather have the bodies rest either at funeral parlours or the void decks of their flats.

"I suppose it would be more convenient for relatives and friends to pay their last respects there, rather than have them all at their flat, which could be quite a squeeze," he explains. "The set-ups at funeral parlours or void decks are nicely done, with canopies and tables and chairs. Such set-ups look more like a reception than a wake."

Hindus also do not generally eat at wakes. "Yet the young today are asking for catering services to be provided."He believes the older generation has "more or less come to terms with what the younger folks want".

"Previously, death was a taboo subject. No one talked about it or even prepared for it. Today, people are able to understand and accept it is part of the cycle of life. People actually come in to our company for pre-planning consultation.

"This would never have happened 10, 15 years back. Then, people were still highly superstitious."

Hindu Casket was formed in 1985. Having been in the business of death for the past nine years, Mr Roy says he has not only witnessed change in clients' attitudes towards death, he has also experienced changes within the service.

He says the industry is now being run by "(the) more educated, who are professional in their approach".

"Our people are trained to broach the subject with family members and show empathy and sympathy," he says. "Even the family members of many of our staff accept the fact that they are in this line of work. They even talk about it openly."

Hindu Casket is now the only Hindu funeral service provider that has its own showroom and in-house embalming service. "Family members would come to the showroom to select the type of caskets they want. These are usually made of better quality wood and nicer designs.

"The young ones also no longer bring in simple headshots of the deceased loved ones to be placed in front of the hearse. The photos today depict how the deceased lived. They would either be dressed in their golf outfit or even formal wear."

No longer do the family members want to mourn the death of the loved ones. Instead, they want to "celebrate their lives". Whereas before, Hindu funerals did not have eulogies, "today more and more families want to have them", he says.

And up until 10 to 15 years ago, only men would go to the cremation site, led by the chief mourner. "Today, we see more women coming to the crematorium for the final farewell," he says.

Mr Roy is also seeing more families wanting to take their loved one's ashes to the sacred Ganges river in India. This is the Hindu practice of Antim Samskara or end-of-life purification. It is believed that immersing the ashes in the river Ganges helps the soul attain liberation from material bondage.

He says he sees about 20 to 30 families a year choosing to sprinkle their loved one's ashes in Singapore, and then travelling to the Ganges to perform funeral rituals, but increasingly, more families are opting to scatter ashes in the Ganges.