Hong Xuan came face to face with a corpse for the first time when he joined Singapore Funeral Group.
"I was a bit scared because I had never seen those things and I just couldn't cope. I would get anxious and scared," said the young man who, at 22, is Singapore Funeral Group's youngest employee.
His colleagues, all of whom are also quite young (the oldest is only 37), advised him to take baby steps by spending time with corpses.
"They told me to take it easy, maybe start by putting on socks for them, or talk to the (dead) 'uncle'."
Wait a minute — what?
Many Chinese people believe that our spirits reside in the body even after a person dies, he explains.
So for three months, Hong Xuan talked to corpses as he dressed them and prepped them for their final journey, assuring them that they were in good hands — just as he assured himself that there was nothing to be afraid of.
Just like that, he grew to love the job and even found that it was a good fit for him. He likes that it is considerably less stressful than his previous jobs and yet exciting because every new assignment is different.
Still a largely taboo subject but many young people are joining death trade
Increasingly, many young people like Hong Xuan are joining the death trade, CNA reported earlier this year.
Long-held superstitions about death and dying are giving way to what is likely the most pragmatic draw of the industry: That it is quite a recession-proof sector.
This shift is quite evident in how Hong Xuan's mother responded when she learned about her son joining a funeral business:
"My mum was just a little opposed to it. However, she didn't say outright that she didn't want me doing this. My mum is not very pantang (superstitious) but she requires me to head straight to the shower when I return home after work, before I touch anything in the house."
Singapore Funeral Group's founder, Nicky Teo, knows a thing or two about the stigma of the death industry. The 32-year-old has been in this industry for 15 years, having started out when he was just 17 (back then, the media called him The Youngest Funeral Director in Singapore).
When asked about his family's reaction to his career choice, he gives a sheepish grin:
"You know back then, 15 years back, being a funeral director was a very xia suay (unlucky) thing."
He remembers distinctively giving out name cards to strangers and having them thrown back in his face.
"They'll tell you 'I don't need this service' or they see you and they say '这么你来这边？这边没有人死啊? (Why are you here? Not enough people die is it?)'"
These responses still happen today, though Teo takes them in his stride. He understands that death is still too taboo a subject for many to talk about.
Being a funeral director was Teo's childhood ambition though, as unconventional as it is, and he persevered.
Over the years, his family came to see the meaning in his work, especially so when he conducted a beautiful funeral service for his late uncle, which earned praise from his family.
"So ya. This one takes time lah," he smiles.
Teo: Anyone can come in and learn
Over the 15 years, Teo has come to understand this industry better and learn from his failures, chief among which is the retention of staff. It has given him quite a bit of a headache though not for the reasons you might think.
You cannot stop an employee from leaving your company to become a funeral director, says Teo.
Unlike funeral parlours (where the embalming is done) and crematoriums, funeral directors are not regulated by the National Environment Agency (NEA), meaning you don't need a licence to become one.
"Workers can just come and see, see, see, and they think they have the know-how and then they go and open their own funeral business...As long as they bring the right (knowledge and practices) to the new company, I'm OK! If not people see me as their sifu (teacher) and then they pull those stunts ah..."
There is no fixed model for a funeral business in Singapore.
It can range from a one-man event coordinator who links up with multiple service providers to more established family-run companies which provide services like embalming.
While there are few barriers to entry — literally any one can become a funeral director — there is a lot of required knowledge like funerary customs as well as a network of connections (undertakers, embalmers, caterers, religious figures, tent suppliers, etc) to cultivate in order to produce a proper funeral service.
Family-run funeral businesses usually pass on this knowledge to each successive generation. Independent funeral directors, like Teo, can also gain this knowledge — through a lot of research or by starting out with a company.
It's not impossible, says Teo.
"I just want to encourage people. In this industry, any one can come in and learn. Doesn't mean that your family is not in this business, you cannot be inside."
In fact, Teo is looking to expand his team of seven.
From a one-man-show 15 years ago, he now leads a team of six, has four vehicles (including a hearse, a supply van, and transport for client families), and his own ceremonial supplies.
Ideally, he would be able to increase his team strength to 15. As it is right now, his staff has to work overtime just to cope with the demand which can go up to 30 funerals per month.
"[Still],I'm grateful that my team they are not that ngeow (calculative) about the hours because they know that death occurs at any time."
Quality service and a Hello Kitty funeral
Teo has one advantage on his side: His team is young and they're not afraid to shake up the practices in the industry.
Teo has travelled to China, Taiwan, and Japan to observe the way funerals are conducted there and if there is one thing he has learned, it is about providing good service.
Take the plates used for displaying offerings. Theirs are from Taiwan, says Teo. It's made of wood and has a nice texture to it — so different from the paper or plastic plates that are so ubiquitous in funerals today.
The wooden plates don't come cheap — S$60 apiece. Now contrast that with paper plates which you can get for a few cents each.
"Bo pian (no choice), this kind of dignity that we are giving to the deceased is irreplaceable," says Teo.
It's a practice that Teo has learned from his trips to Taiwan and Japan. His eyes light up as he talks about fresh flowers:
"They emphasise a lot on fresh flowers...the whole set up will be all lined with real flowers. And then they will sculpt it based on the deceased's hobbies or liking!"
Over here in Singapore though, funerals are still quite oriented towards religion. But Teo and his team tries their best to make the funeral a personal affair by catering to the deceased's favourite colours, food, and music.
Singapore Funeral Group's packages are not the cheapest in the industry. They cost between S$5,000 and S$8,000 but it's quality service.
Don't take Teo's word for it, though.
If you head over to Singapore Funeral Group's Facebook page, you'll find that the business has an aggregate review score of 5 out of 5 stars. Key qualities highlighted were the group's professionalism and knowledge despite their youth.
One reviewer said:
"[Though] young, they are very professional and knowledgeable. At times, surrounding people tends to give 'helpful' advice. Sound out these 'helpful' advice to the team and they are able to tell you the background of all the [hearsay]."
So what's the most unique funeral he has ever planned?
Teo remembers bringing in a lot of balloon sculptures for the funeral service of a young girl. The girl was also a fan of Hello Kitty, so they bought Hello Kitty stickers for her coffin, to send her off with her favourite character.
Of course, the company has also been subjected to criticism from clients from time to time, but Teo takes it in his stride.
"This kind of thing do happen because we understand family members are grieving, they have not enough sleep because they have to watch over the body...we just accept it."
As we end our chat, I ask Teo what kind of funeral service he would want for himself. He pauses for a moment before saying:
"I always say that death can occur at any time. The coffin is not a privilege for the old. It can be for anyone — young and old."
It might come as a surprise for many, but after organising so many elaborate services, all Teo wants is a "simple affair" with his favourite music and a burial — and of course, fresh flowers.
"Don't give me plastic flowers!"
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
This interview was conducted in English and Mandarin. Some quotes were translated and/or edited for clarity. Top images by Nicky Teo, Joshua Lee.