Death is a taboo topic especially in Asian culture. It’s almost as if speaking about death will invite one to your doorstep. So there is a lot about the funeral business that we are deliberately ignorant about.
A few weeks ago, I posted a report that two wooden coffins were found floating in the Kallang River, apparently discarded. There was no mention if they found bodies in them but I’m guessing there were none or it would be front-page news.
Another funeral related article that came out two days ago was even more disturbing. In that story, it seems that the dead whose body are to be washed and prepared for the last rites are allegedly not given proper respect. That article, though brief, gave us a behind the scenes peek at the funeral industry we rarely hear about and the verdict wasn’t a pleasant one.
Bertha Henson, a veteran journalist, commented on the article that someone should investigate this story and I’m thinking perhaps if anyone should go dig into this death business it would be me.
So I decided to undertake the grave task of blowing the lid off this mysterious trade and bring the truth to light.
Tucked away in the corner of an industrial estate in Kallang Bahru facing the Pan Island Expressway, are two rows of shops, all dealing with funeral services. Dogs roam freely but they were non-threatening. Read: So there’s really no need to cull them. From afar, the shops look nondescript. The hearses parked along the roads gave the only indication of what these businesses are about.
Interesting fun fact: Kallang Bahru area is a special zone demarcated for funeral services that involve washing and embalming. The wastewater doesn’t get channeled into the same sewage system that goes into our Newater.
If you walk down the street, you can clearly look into most of these shops. They do look unnerving, I’d admit. Empty coffins were stacked on metal shelves; space was a serious constraint. The interior was a dull cold grey. Based on the décor, I judged that most of these businesses have been in operation for a long time. The area felt more like a factory than a place for the grieving to see to the final needs of the departed. From the outside however, I could not spot any bodies lying on metal trays in the open. Small blessings, I guess.
One of the contributing reasons why these bodies were treated in an allegedly disrespectful manner is that there isn’t a culture for the family members of the departed to participate in the cleaning of the body so in all likelihood these funeral operators primarily serve a demographic of customers that are not able to offer direct feedback, and if you have been in the business for as long as they have, I reckon they are probably desensitised to the whole idea of death and propriety.
However, one shop clearly stood out from amongst the rest with its black awning, green carpet grass and frosted doors. The facade of this place looks more like a cafe.
I tried the door and it opened up into what looks like ... a cafe. It was a relatively small area but cosy and warm. There was a closed door on the far end of the wall, a couch on one side of the room with fluffy pillows, and on the opposite side there was a fridge stocked with drinks and a pretty decent coffee machine that looks like it might need a barista to manage it.
This was a stark contrast from the world outside.
I made myself comfortable on the couch and two ladies walked out of the door to greet me. Later I learned that they are called Showers of Love Angels and their job was to bathe, dress and apply make up for the deceased in the presence of the family. They served me cappuccino in double walled glass cup accompanied with a packet of chocolate chip cookies. This is seriously going way beyond expectations.
They asked me if I needed their services and seeing as how I don’t know anyone who I might name as a potential candidate to be their customer, I reluctantly told them my intention for the visit and braced for the rejection. To my surprise the Angels asked if I would like to meet the funeral director and to have a look around.
I nodded in a manner that I imagined gave the impression of “yeah, sure, if you insist” but it probably came out screaming, “yes, pleaseeeeee!”
As one Angel retreated into the backroom I assumed to call for their director, the other Angel took the time to show me around the place.
In the main chamber, chairs were stacked in neat rows in front of a large curtain. There was no dead body in sight. No stray animals. No creepy horror movie vibe either.
Displayed on a small counter top by the corner were necklaces, shiny trinkets, and stuff that looks like designer thermo flasks.
“Souvenirs?” I asked.
“No,” the Angel laughed. “Those are to contain the ash after cremation. The one you are holding is a biodegradable urn that you can bury in the ground and it will grow into a tree.”
“Wow! No sh-“
Before I could complete my reply, a tall lady dressed in a corporate black suit walked out from behind the curtains and greeted me.
“Hi, my name is Angjolie and I’m the Funeral Director of Showers of Love.”
In my 2-hour chat with Ms. Angjolie Mei, I learned that the funeral business is a stagnant unchanging landscape. To say that of all the businesses in the industry wouldn’t be entirely accurate either.
Ms. Angjolie, who is a second-generation funeral director, and others like her, is a new breed of entrepreneurs who are trying to give this industry a facelift.
Traditionally, this was an old boys club and when Ms. Angjolie took over the reins from her late father ‘The Coffin King’ Ang Yew Seng, she was faced with a lot of discrimination. The old guards who were working with her father were resistant to change. The general mindset was - if it ain’t broke, why fix?
And that mentality might explain the blasé attitude from the caretaker described in the report. I’m of the opinion that the man wasn’t trying to be disrespectful. It’s just the way they have been doing things all along. He, in all honesty, doesn’t see anything wrong with it.
In a CNA article written by Mayo Martin, there was a story shared by Mr. Yip Yew Chong that could shed light on the state of funeral homes back in the days of old.
“In the day, there were funerals, and at night, there would be wakes. When I went downstairs, I’d have to walk past funeral parlours and the corpses would be on wooden planks. After a few days, they’d wash the corpses out in the open before putting them inside coffins. Nothing in those days was sanitary but you get used to it!”
Mr Yip was referring to life on Sago Lane during the 70s and 80s where he lived as a child. Today, this scene is nothing more than a parking lot beside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown.
The funeral home described by Sunil Kumar in the main article is probably still holding on to past practices, which can appear to be detached from the modern society’s decorum.
Ms. Angjolie acknowledges this as well citing some incidences from personal experience.
“They don’t realise or notice that it is not socially acceptable. I saw some things that were in my opinion not professional at all. I was only 24 years old then. When I voiced out some changes I wanted to make that I strongly felt would be a more respectful way to treat the departed, I was told by the elders that they have eaten more salt than I have eaten rice. Don’t have to tell them what to do.”
Ms Angjolie’s mother was none too supportive either. Instead of siding with her daughter, she advised Ms Angjolie to go out there and find a “proper” job and not spend her days hanging around old men. Ms. Angjolie initially resented her mother for pushing her away but later realised that if not for her mother’s insistence on going out to see the world, she wouldn’t have had opened her eyes to see how business was done outside the industry. Five years in the corporate world as an independent financial advisor, Ms. Angjolie left her five-figure per month job in 2010 to come back to the funeral industry, determined to make a real change. Leaving the shadow of her father’s legacy, Ms. Angjolie set out on her own by starting The Life Celebrant.
Instead of focusing her efforts only on the departed (I was corrected when I used the term “deceased”) she diverted her attention to the living. Her motivation is simple - “how would I want to see my father be treated.”
The cafe exterior, the warm lighting, the table ornaments, all these were designed to give comfort for the grieving. The high tech shower facility resembles more of a Jacuzzi and looks inviting enough for me to consider trying it out. The appearance Ms. Angjolie cuts with her corporate wear is meant to add a touch of professionalism to the industry.
When asked about what she thinks about the article, Ms. Angjolie admits being upset with the news of bodies being treated without dignity but she was also quick to defend that how other people run their businesses was not for her to comment. She on her part will continue to do the things that she feels would help people see this industry in a different light.
To be continued - Part 2. What is the process to cleaning and embalming a body?
If you can’t wait for the rest of this series to be revealed and want to know what this business, you can check out this book: Dying to Meet You: Confessions of a Funeral Director by Angjolie Mei or pre-order the latest Mandarin edition here.
Confession Journal is a collection of stories and reviews submitted by the public.