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Living with honour, leaving with dignity

Direct Funeral Services is blazing new trails in a once staid industry

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Jenny Tay, Managing Director and Darren Cheng, CEO of Direct Funeral Services.

WHETHER it's uniformed staff serving quality fare or professional emcees delivering polished eulogies, Direct Funeral Services has upped the ante when it comes to the funeral industry. Indeed, the company sees itself as an events management company more than a funeral service provider, providing a level of service rarely seen here. Driving Direct Funeral's transformation in recent years is its Chief Executive Officer Darren Cheng and Managing Director Jenny Tay, the daughter of company founder Roland Tay.

Mr Tay, who set up the firm almost 40 years ago, made a name for the personal touch he brought to his services. It was not uncommon for him to make personal visits to homes of clients. To this day, Mr Tay continues to help out at Direct Funeral, where he mans the customer hotline during the night shift.

The next-generation leaders who took over seven years ago have built on that reputation by professionalising all aspects of the business. Employees here are sent for training courses designed for the F&B and hospitality industries, and are benchmarked against standards in those sectors.

With the help of external consultants, they have also put in place a system of detailed standard operating procedures that ensure continuity in operations even after staff leave.

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"We have professionalised our services and revamped our brand. This included changing the look and presentation of our staff and providing emcees that deliver eulogies. We took our cue by learning from our counterparts in China, Taiwan and Japan," says Ms Tay. "The idea is to make our services more relevant to the consumers of today."

Catering to the living

One innovative touch that Direct Funeral provides is a brief biography written by their staff that is placed on every table at a funeral, giving attendees a snapshot of the deceased's life. Mr Cheng says that this is part of the firm's philosophy that funerals should be about celebrating one's life, as much as it is about mourning one's passing.

"In the past there was a lot of focus on tradition at funerals, and people spent a lot of their money on religious rites. While that is still important, today's customers want a simpler version. They would rather focus on the service experience that not only takes care of the deceased but also looks after the people who are still living," he says.

The good news to customers is that these extra services come at no additional cost. The cost of Direct Funeral's basic package comes with all the bells and whistles, but has stayed the same since Mr Tay's time at the helm. In a tiered pricing system, the cost goes up based on the variety and quality of products, and number of people to be served.

These efforts are paying dividends. Revenue has more than doubled over the past five years, while the firm's staff strength has grown more than 10-fold from just five to 65 since Mr Cheng and Ms Tay took over the reins seven years ago.

They have also been able to lure younger talent to a business which many millennials have traditionally shunned. The company has done so by not only paying above-market wages, but by offering training programmes - including overseas internships - and a clear career path for new hires. The firm is also exploring setting up its own training academy.

"We have worked to change the perception of funeral directors. We are hiring from outside the industry, people with events management and customer services backgrounds," explains Mr Cheng.

"There are now many roles for our employees, whether it's as a team leader, emcee or funeral director. Each one comes with its own career paths and levels. This makes the job more meaningful for the younger generation."

Reflecting the success of this strategy, the bulk of their employees is now 20 to 40 years old, compared to 40 to 65 years old seven years ago.

Helping families cope

Despite the professionalising of Direct Funeral, what hasn't changed is the human touch that Mr Tay brought to the business. Mr Cheng, a qualified grief counsellor, is committed to helping customers deal with the grief of their loved ones' passing.

He has written two books - Where did Grandpa go? and Where did Grandma go? - that parents can use to explain to children what happens to someone when he or she dies. These books are available to be given out at funerals.

Direct Funeral also has a charity arm, Direct Life Foundation, that organises events for the elderly and underprivileged living in HDB estates. These include visits to attractions such as Resorts World and Gardens by the Bay. Set up in 2015, the foundation has so far served 560 beneficiaries, and has a database of over 200 volunteers.

Looking ahead, Mr Cheng wants Direct Funeral to further expand their philosophy that funerals should be a celebration of life. To this end, he is encouraging his customers to start talking to them well before the end of their lives.

He says: "Funerals are seen as this sombre affair, we want to create a mood where people can celebrate the deceased instead, and focus on the positive aspects of the person's life."