“[F]or they believe that though by the imperfection of human sight they are invisible to us, yet they are present among us, and hear those discourses that pass concerning themselves.”
-Utopia, Thomas More
The word ‘utopia’ originates from the combination of the Greek ou, meaning ‘no’, and topos, meaning ‘place’. A term first coined by Sir Thomas More in the 16th century – as the title of his book of the same name – the word carries a double meaning: the almost similar Greek word, eu-topos, means ‘good place’.
Over time, we have come to characterise utopias as worlds of perfection: States with Philosopher Kings; cities where citizens live in harmonious accord; science-fiction realms where technology has eliminated both death and taxes.
In a perfect world, the passing of our loved ones would be all eulogy and no grieving, with celebrations of a life well-lived and memories only of contentment. Alas, reality is hardly predictable and the inevitable deaths of loved ones, even if expected, cannot be faced so graciously.
More’s Utopia paints a euphemistic picture of death, which accords to the Utopian sanitised landscape. His description, however, hints at the suffocating obligation to silence all things ugly, because the dead have ears too:
“When any die cheerfully … they do not mourn for them, but sing hymns when they carry out their bodies, and commending their souls very earnestly to God: their whole behaviour is then rather grave than sad, they burn the body, and set up a pillar where the pile was made, with an inscription to the honour of the deceased … they discourse of this good life and worthy actions, but speak nothing oftener and with more pleasure than of his serenity at the hour of death…”
In 2015, BBC.com published the article, “Why expats call this utopia”. It examined the aspects of Singapore living such as job hunting, financial stability, housing and taxes, which entice expatriates to settle down in our Garden City.
Singapore is no Utopia, and death still lurks beneath its lacquered surface. Like the Utopians, our gaze is averted from the dark undercurrent beneath the kitschy Singaporean carapace; but unlike the inhabitants of More’s world, we have to face death’s complexities.
Why is the reality of death rendered invisible in Singapore? What happens to the bodies of the dearly departed in Singapore? What can death teach us about living?
Here, we’re digging deep (six feet under, to be specific) into Singapore’s customs of ushering the deceased from this world. We sit down with Darren Cheng – Business Development Director and grief counsellor at Direct Funerals – to unearth the practical difficulties and taboos Singaporeans face when death comes calling, and to bring light to how the Direct Funeral team is gradually changing attitudes towards death in the spotless city.
OVERCOMING FEAR AND LOATHING
To understand the cultures of the living around the world, it is important to attend to the manner in which they treat their dead. After all, death taboos have a long history and are not idiosyncratic to any one culture or people.
Some societies view the dead as a threat to their spiritual and physical hygiene. The Zoroastrians in Iran and India believed that burying the dead would defile their water supply, and cremation would cause air pollution. Fearing that the corpses were rife with demons, they would lay the bodies of the deceased on a Dakhma (or “Tower of Silence”), in concentric circles, with the bodies of men, women and children arranged from outermost to innermost.
This exposed the bodies as food for scavenging birds, and to the sun, for the bones to be bleached. These bones were then gathered, dissolved in lime in the tower’s ossuary pit, filtered through charcoal, and finally washed away by rainwater. This practice was outlawed in Iran in the 70s, with urbanisation infringing onto the rural areas containing the Dakhmas.
In Singapore, a Chinese-majority metropolis, there still lingers a sense that death is closely entwined with misfortune, via ritual pollution. In countries like Hong Kong, there are buildings that skip any floor number with the number ‘four’ in it, as the word ‘four’ sounds like the word ‘death’ in Mandarin and Cantonese; in Singapore and other Chinese diasporas, it is taboo to give clocks as gifts, due to it sounding like the word ‘end’; The seventh month of the lunar calendar is deemed by the Chinese to be the ghost month, with offerings to placate the dead.
“I’ve had a very small handful of friends who didn’t invite me to their wedding,” Darren shares when we ask him if the death taboo is still prevalent in Singapore’s Chinese community. “Their parents weren’t comfortable with it.”
Darren and his wife, Jenny Tay, took over Direct Funeral Services from Tay’s father in 2013 when Mr Tay was having health issues. An article on the forward-looking couple’s wedding photos went viral in 2015 when they used a white coffin as a prop. The article was shared three times greater than the coverage on the death of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, according to Darren.
“I didn’t tell my parents [when I first joined the funeral industry],” Darren laughs. He had previously worked as a counsellor before deciding to help his wife with her family business. “My dad and mum are very conservative, and they would surely have scolded me [for joining this line]. So I hid it away from them.”
A natural conversationalist with a winning smile and an optimistic demeanour, it comes as little surprise that Darren desires to create dialogue around the phenomena of death in Singapore. He has authored a children’s book, entitled Where Did Grandpa Go, to help children to understand and cope with the process of losing a loved one.
“I’ll say that the biggest reason to overcome this taboo of death is that if you don’t see an expiration to your life, you’re never going to truly appreciate your life. If you think your life is infinite, you’ll take time slowly. Death is what drives people to do better.”
DEATH AND TAXES
How do worldly, material affairs intersect with the domain of death, spirituality and religion?
The Vikings believed that ship burial would usher the dead to Valhalla, the eternal paradise preceding Christianity’s heaven. A millennium-year-old Viking ship used in the burial of a chieftain was excavated in Scotland in 2011, together with his possessions that included “a whetstone from Norway, a bronze ringpin from Ireland,” and “his sword with beautifully decorated hilt,” The Guardian reported.
The Hindu funeral custom of the Sati (declared illegal in 1829) entailed a widow committing suicide by means such as throwing herself into the pyre of her dead husband. The Sioux and Lakota tribes in North America would kill the dead person’s favourite horse and tie it by the tail to the scaffold or tree containing its owner’s corpse.
As cruel as it sounds, grief seems to be an exploitable currency in Singapore. Darren recalled how when one of his collaborators’ father passed, she was overcharged by a family-recommended undertaker, who did not provide proper documentation or a clear basis for his quotation and collected the body from the mortuary, in an open-top lorry. Needless to say, the emotional situation was abused through a lack of transparency.
On the flipside, local funeral companies have had the tough luck of facing a small fraction of miserly customers. Funeral companies routinely provide drinks and titbits for wakes and funerals. A customer of Direct Funeral deducted his payment by $200 on the grounds that the peanuts had lao hong [gone bad].
While one may assume grieving families to be preoccupied with, well, grieving, Darren bemoans the fact that “people who are grieving are still Singaporean,” hinting at the Singaporean cultural stereotype of being kiasu [possessing a fear of losing out]. Even worse are the customers who refuse to pay once the funeral has been conducted.
The evident abuse of goodwill has not demoralised Darren, whose company provides the majority of the pro-bono funeral services in Singapore, in line with his deep-seated belief in the need to “help people through difficult times.”
Some of these cases were due to murders, the biggest being that of Huang Na, an 8-year-old who went missing for some three weeks before her strangulated decomposed body was found in a small box at Telok Blangah Hill Park. It left the country shaken. To cover funeral costs, donations were collected at the wake. More than $600,000 was collected for Huang Na.
While this altruism often places Darren in a moral dilemma, the master’s degree holder in counselling has grown accustomed to sieving out the disingenuous. Charitable acts by funeral companies are derived from the recognition that a proper send-off of a passed loved one is a necessity not all can afford.
To cater to different income groups, Cheng plans to offer his services in a menu style on his website, so people can customise their orders according to their pockets. This movement towards transparency is done in the hope of alleviating exploitation from either clients or service providers.
A RENAISSANCE OF THE FUNERAL INDUSTRY?
The death industry is not an immutable static field, although innovations come about at a gradual – almost glacial pace.
In North America and Canada, ecological burials have existed for about 20 years. The process encompasses burying the dead in biodegradable containers, without formaldehyde-based embalming fluid or synthetic ingredients, so that they may return to the earth as nutrients for trees.
In Singapore, innovation comes less in the burial, but in operations, production and manpower acquisition.
The local funeral industry makes for quite the unattractive job scope – long hours, low market wage, carrying bodies (that may smell), and no career progression. The mean monthly income of an undertaker is $1600, and though funeral industry workers tend to work regular hours, many are expected to be on call, should a death occur at night or in the early hours of the morning.
Darren laughs when we ask him how he convinces individuals to join him in the funeral industry: “Our recruitment pitch is this: You work long hours, you have no air conditioning, you’ll see dead bodies, and sometimes the bodies will smell.” He pauses, and his tone sobers. “But you’ll be helping families.”
Making peace in the tug-o-war within families – this is where Darren has realised his core motivation in the business. According to him, the type of job satisfaction one experiences from helping families is unique and extends well beyond the hardship of long hours and average wage. He does, however, acknowledge the need for people to feed themselves on top of making the world a better place. Currently, his pallbearers earn $3,000 a month with overtime.
For a while, the highest education level held by Darren’s employees was a lower Secondary education, and they only spoke Hokkien. Later, he had three university graduates who he tried to coax into the industry, but some of them felt the job to be unchallenging.
In the spirit of developing his employees, he has also initiated a scheme of career progression and job specialisation; there are ranks within the circle of pallbearers (i.e. pallbearer one, two, three, and a leader, inspired by military organisations), and other specialty career paths, such as emcees and a newly founded logistics team.
Surprisingly, there was no system of body tagging before Darren stepped into the scene. He described how with age, people start to look similar: Everything sags and distinctive features are blurred; elderly men and women become harder to differentiate, much fewer women from women.
He recalled a nightmare situation in the US, where an undertaker had bodies of two similarly looking elderly women. One was to be brought to straight cremation (no embalming), and the other was not. After the familial goodbyes to a closed casket, they realised they had cremated the wrong body.
Back home, a similarly grave mistake occurred at Mandai Crematorium and Columbarium. Asiaone.com reported some 30 family members of one deceased Soh Kang Gee, 85, waiting for 40 minutes in Hall 2 of the crematorium, when the casket had been moved and burnt in Hall 1, a situation which Darren quite succinctly described as “hong gan [seriously fucked]”.
To avoid such deadly errors, especially when faced with up to eight bodies in the same room, Darren has implemented a system of body tagging at Direct Funeral, so as to prevent the wrong body from going to the wrong family.
All these factors put undertakers like Darren in a tough spot, but he is determined to change the game.
MEDIATORS BETWEEN THE LIVING AND THE DEAD
The satisfaction Darren experiences from staying true to his life philosophy is infectious: “We’re not just event coordinators. We’re also guardians of families,” he tells us. The job scope of “guardians” begins in the minute details – the manner one converses with the grieving family must be gentle and compassionate , and extends to a heightened sensitivity to nuances. It can be as simple as providing the grieving family with a text message template to broadcast the wake details to their loved ones.
Communication is key in these situations. Direct Funeral Services understands this and offers emcees who are trained to craft and deliver eulogies by learning about the deceased and the family, through conversation and observation. This enables more emotionally reserved family members, especially those accustomed to the stoicism of Chinese culture, to have their feelings articulated through the emcee.
For instance, the emcee may say on behalf of the eldest son, “Dad, now that you’re gone, I’m now the man of the family. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of my two sisters.” In a way, being a voice for the grieving enables families to achieve expedited closure.
Family mediation has also fallen into the hands of undertakers. Making decisions for the passed loved one, especially in a multi-religious society like Singapore, is often a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Of course, the different family members mean well, but distressing times are frequently unfavourable for collective decision-making.
In the case of Darren’s “buddy”, his grandma passed away, leaving two Buddhist aunts and three Christian sons to fight against each other for what each side deemed a better funeral. As the calm in a sea of emotions, Darren suggested an agnostic setup, with freedom for a pastor and a monk to perform funerary rituals at different times.
In Singapore, where the existence of multiple religions and the duly required tolerance are sources of national pride, the fragile harmonious surface cracks in such situations behind closed doors.
Another case Darren witnessed was of three brothers, one Christian, one Taoist, and one freethinker, quarrelling at Mount Elizabeth Hospital over what their Taoist father would have wanted for his funeral. Little did they know, the Christian brother had snuck a pastor into the hospital the night prior to perform the baptism.
LESSONS FROM THE DEAD
In Singapore, death is like background music. It’s always there and if we try hard enough, we can ignore it. We can even sing along to it, but more often than not, we find ourselves talking over it.
As farfetched as it sounds, it is ponderous yet essential to realise that “death is what drives people to do better,” in Darren’s words. This irony drives us to understand how finite our time on earth is, and to not take this time for granted. The swifter we recognise the universality and concreteness of its experience, the better we will live our lives and treat the people around us.
The cliché of ‘life is too short’ does not have to be, if its ‘shortness’ motivates us to achieve what we need within a span shorter than the stipulated 100 years, like Mozart who composed his first symphonies at eight years old, and died at 35 years old.
Of course, we are not all Mozart. Going down in history as an inspiring household name is an experience few of us will actualise. What we do have a hold on, though, is how we impact those around us. It is through the acknowledgement of death’s reality that we gain new respect for human life, especially when it comes to those who gave us life.
Filial piety – a time-worn phrase associated with Asian societies – gains new meaning when one understands how the cycle of life works; your parents or guardians raise you, and when the time comes, the roles reverse, and you lower them, gently, to their final resting place.
It is understandably perplexing when one wants to actualise such respect through action, because actions take on different meanings in different cultures and religions. The three Christian sons (mentioned earlier in this article), initially restrained by religious beliefs, were coaxed by Darren to kneel and bow to their deceased father as a sign of reverence that transcends religious beliefs.
Such tension between religious and cultural symbols, particularly in a multi-religious and multi-cultural society like Singapore, is one we need to confront and reconcile, or compromise. It is through this confrontation of tension, and a greater understanding of symbols, that we become less fearful of death and the unknown.
Additional reporting by Raphael Lim.