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A Third-World Funeral Industry – In Singapore

By Guan Tan

A conventional religious, Buddhist funeral service set-up.
 
The Life Celebrant
A conventional religious, Buddhist funeral service set-up.

It's peak season for the local funeral industry right now. Like every other service sector, demand ebbs and flows throughout the year. In Singapore, it's uncanny, but it's busiest right after the Chinese seventh lunar month, or the ghost month wraps up. "Even in other countries, they have seasons. Some seasons will be busy, some quiet," Angjolie Mei, funeral director and founder of The Life Celebrant quips. "For American and the European countries, it's usually towards the end of the year." About Singapore's almost mysterious death trends, Ang shrugs, "It's just bizarre the way it is." 

That's perhaps, the only thing that won't shift amidst a climate of change that Ang is now setting in motion. To her, Singapore is a first-world country with a third-world funeral industry. And it all stems from a social taboo, "Deathcare is always not spoken about."

The ear-piercing silence surrounding the industry has led to a major stagnation – the methods, procedures, workforce and public perception of funerals remain stuck in time.

The Life CelebrantAngjolie Mei pictured at work.
Angjolie Mei pictured at work.

A Male-Dominated Workforce

When we dropped in to visit her new office in a northern industrial park, traditional funeral companies line the area. Men in their forties and fifties sit about, sharing a cigarette and afternoon chat. Traditionally, the funeral industry was helmed by and operated by men. Often, they were "people with no education. They couldn't get another job." 

Majority of the industry remains this way. Although newer companies have injected change, like Ang's. Most of her team members are young female graduates. "Right now, there are actually more people coming to us than us trying to look for them. We no longer use newspapers to publicise about the funeral industry. We put it on social media and we get a lot more response. It's sort of, shifted."

"But we are still in the infancy stage because compared to funeral companies in other countries, we are still very manual," Ang continues.

To her, a younger workforce guarantees progress in procedures. Yet, these manual procedures are so deep-seated in the local industry. It will take many years to slowly change things up. 

The Life CelebrantAngjolie Mei pictured in a local burial cemetery.
Angjolie Mei pictured in a local burial cemetery.

Burials

"For instance the cemetery. In other countries, they are already using something automated where you place the casket in." She draws an example, "You see those American films – you press a button and it lowers the casket down." A cremation casket may weigh much lesser, but a burial casket may weigh anywhere up to 140 kilograms. In Singapore, funeral operators are lowering the coffins with steel rods and ropes. "It's very different," she sighs. 

The Life CelebrantTools in a Japanese embalming room, photographed by Angjolie Mei.
Tools in a Japanese embalming room, photographed by Angjolie Mei.

Embalming

A couple of years ago, Ang took a sabbatical to New Zealand where she graduated in funeral directing. Later, her sister embarked on the same course. When the sisters returned to the local industry, they both shared the same sentiment, "The quality of embalming is very poor here in Singapore." 

Most people won't put much thought into an after-death process like embalming. But to Ang, embalming is perhaps, one of the most significant procedures in deathcare. It's a very intimate process between the embalmer and the deceased. 

In Singapore, every deceased body goes through the same embalming process. When ushered out of the embalmer's room, every individual looks the same. "Every deceased body's hairstyle is the same, which is combed back. They lie there, the embalmer washes the hair and they just comb, and that's it!" 

Yet, when doing her apprenticeship in New Zealand, Ang was entrusted to embalm a grandmother who had permed, curly hair and liked pink. "The children gave me the scarf and her pink lipstick... And we always had a photograph to see how we should style the hair. There were a lot of things that I saw in New Zealand that were not done in Singapore. And I felt, 'Why is it that we don't focus on these things?'"

Tung PhamHere, a staff member applying makeup to Randy the dummy. Staff will guide family members in the final steps of the process.
Here, a staff member applying makeup to Randy the dummy. Staff will guide family members in the final steps of the process.

Now that she's back in Singapore, Ang rolled out a new step to the local funeral proceedings. She calls it the 'Showers of Love'. After the body is preserved with chemicals – formaldehydes – and dressed, it's rolled out into a private room. Family members, assisted by trained embalmers, are encouraged to finish the embalming process. They comb the hair, paint the nails, apply cosmetics and accessories. It may sound like a daunting task. Ang however, has observed grieving family members appreciate this experience. 

To her, after-death proceedings are not only for the dead. The most part of it is to help the living find closure. 

That's a small change for embalming. Behind closed doors, there's a greater issue for Ang. In Singapore, only formaldehydes are used to preserve the bodies. "Later on, when I was doing my studies... then I realised that the chemical that we've been using, in fact, is sort of banned in America." In New Zealand, "they have many chemicals", including paraformaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol and phenol

"Different bodies are different! So you have to embalm them differently," Ang recounts.

All these chemicals are extremely hazardous to the embalmers. For that, countries like New Zealand have safety regulations in place for embalmers. Likewise, embalmers have to be professionally trained. Even more so, accident victims can undergo reconstructive embalming, where their facial or bodily features are surgically reconstructed. Yet, all these are unheard of in Singapore.

"They call it carcinogenic. It's not good for the embalmer... but we're using it... A lot of people don't know about this." 

Tung PhamAngjolie Mei recounts a non-religious memorial service she directed in Singapore.
Angjolie Mei recounts a non-religious memorial service she directed in Singapore.

Non-Religious Funerals

Back to the New Zealand pink-loving grandmother that Ang embalmed, "After I took care of this lady with the pink scarf... The funeral director asked, 'Would you be interested to join us for the funeral?'" Ang joined them. To her surprise, it was a non-religious service, or what they call a 'celebrant'.

"It means that someone comes in, it's not religious. It's just a funeral celebrant." Friends and family members gathered, sharing their fondest memories of the deceased. Everything pivots around the life, instead of religious rituals. 

A non-religious celebrant service never existed in Singapore until Ang introduced it. "Even recently, I heard about it. This nurse shared with me a story, that the family she was taking care of, had to choose a religion because the funeral director didn't know what to do if it were a non-religious one." 

Funerals are often sold as packages – like all-inclusive tour or wedding deals – in Singapore. In times of need, family members either choose from a Taoist, Buddhist, Christian, Catholic, Muslim or Hindu funerals. Individuals will be hard-pressed to find a company willing to do free-thinker funerals.

What Ang is doing, is not to displace these religious ceremonies altogether – people still need them. She's merely introduced another option, a non-religious one. And she's seen foreigners, expats mostly, enquiring for it. Some are emergency cases that require her immediate attention. Some clients, however, are planning in advance. 

Tung PhamAngjolie Mei was too, trained in Canada's Mount Royal University.
Angjolie Mei was too, trained in Canada's Mount Royal University.

Pre-Planned Funerals

To Singaporeans, planning one's own funeral is utter bad luck. One might think it's a Western custom, something Asians are less inclined to. But Ang begs to differ. "If you look at China, look at Taiwan... They are way more advanced than us. They've Sheng Si Xue," translated to The Life and Death course. The National Taiwan University, for instance, offers this course as part of their medical curriculum.

Through education, the general public in these countries readily accept and talk about death. It snowballs into a progressive deathcare industry. 

"They are very open about it. [In] Taiwan, they even have people doing funerals before they pass – the farewell party before they pass away. It's very common." 

It all boils down to the country's perception of death. "[China and Taiwan] started way ahead of us. But we can also be moving," Ang pauses for a moment. "We are, in fact, improving." 

She considers her career trajectory – how she struggled to join this industry as a female, how she has a long way to go. Afterall, her fight to move the funeral industry from third-world to first-world is not an internal one. She first, has to change the general public's understanding of death. And that is a mammoth task. But she counts her trophies and is remarkably optimistic. "This is a dying trade? There's no growth? I beg to differ."