The Big Read: The funeral industry may have overhauled its image, but it faces new problems
SINGAPORE — When funeral director Eugene Tan fell out with his former boss at a funeral service firm in 2018, the young man resolved to start his own business.
SINGAPORE — When funeral director Eugene Tan fell out with his former boss at a funeral service firm in 2018, the young man resolved to start his own business.
He was then two and a half years into the job, having joined the industry in early 2016.
Armed with an arsenal of contacts — from tent providers and florists to members of religious communities — Mr Tan, now 24, was able to get business at his firm, Entrust Funeral Service, off the ground almost immediately.
While he tapped the services of various providers for starters, he gradually began carrying out more tasks in-house. For instance, he has a funeral supplies department equipped with mobile toilets and fridges, funeral attire, urns as well as snacks for funeral wakes.
Spurred by low barriers to entry, Mr Tan is among a wave of new blood to start their own business in the funeral trade.
Once shunned by many, the industry is now bustling, with close to a thousand firms gunning for a slice of the pie.
There are more than 800 businesses providing funeral and related services, based on industry estimates.
It is unclear how this figure has changed over the years, but the industry is a revolving door for companies. Some barely last a year, while others operate under multiple entities, said industry players.
Operators that do not focus on funerals as their primary business — such as tent companies — are also elbowing their way in.
The infusion of fresh blood has revitalised a once-grotty industry, but with it come headaches: The quality of funerary services — only parlours with embalming rooms are licensed for now — varies widely, training is patchy (or non-existent in some firms), and inexperienced workers end up having to pick up skills on the job.
In the past year alone, two high-profile incidents have thrust the industry into the spotlight.
On Dec 30, a mix-up by an employee of funeral firm Harmony Funeral Care led to the cremation of a wrong body. This happened after the employee mistook the body of 82-year-old Kee Kin Tiong for the dead relative of another client when collecting it from the embalming room of Century Products Company, a funeral parlour.
After the mix-up, the National Environment Agency (NEA), which regulates parlours, has toughened the rules.
Parlours must now use body identification tags, and keep embalming rooms locked and off-limits to all but authorised crew. Those who fail to comply could have their licence suspended or revoked.
Separately, The Straits Times reported in June last year that a man had his mother’s body moved to another funeral parlour after Fook Sow Undertaker in Geylang Bahru allegedly left her body uncovered.
MEDLEY OF SERVICE PROVIDERS
At present, the funeral industry is made up of a melange of service providers. At its heart are undertakers who provide, for instance, coffins and manpower for funerals. Some have their own embalming facilities.
Working with undertakers are independent funeral directors — event coordinators who see to funeral arrangements. Some operate as one-man firms that assemble different providers, such as tent and mobile-toilet firms.
But arrangements vary. Established players, such as Direct Funeral Services and Ang Chin Moh Funeral Directors, house some of these services under one roof — including their own embalming rooms.
The NEA website directs the public to a list of funeral directors published by the Association of Funeral Directors Singapore (AFD), which represents established players in the profession. It has 36 members.
The public can also seek the services of other providers.
If embalming is needed, this is done at the 22 NEA-licensed funeral parlours with embalming facilities.
The agency licenses these spaces to uphold environmental hygiene standards, with parlours required to abide by sanitary rules for fittings, furniture and apparatuses.
NEA does not regulate providers of other funerary services, such as businesses supplying wake halls and funeral directors without embalming services.
NEW WAVE SWEEPING THE INDUSTRY
The past decade has seen gradual albeit discernible shifts in perceptions of the funeral industry, as it shed its scruffy image of dingy parlours and boisterous, sloppily dressed workers.
Funeral parlours underwent makeovers to appeal to those who prize professionalism and the personal touch, and more funeral directors ditched singlets and shorts for suits, said industry players.
Greater awareness of dying and the death trade, and more media attention on young workers in the profession, have also made the industry more palatable to the young, they said.
The industry is in a “transitional phase” as industry veterans take a backseat and hand over the reins to younger people, said Mr Nicky Teo, 31, chief executive officer of the Singapore Funeral Company.
Most of AFD’s members are family-owned and family-managed businesses, and the association said the new generation of funeral directors are proactive in taking their business further.
Many attend business management and facial reconstruction courses. “They also attend international funeral conferences, such as the National Funeral Directors Association (US) annual conference and exhibition — the largest of its kind globally, and the Asia Funeral Expo, just to name a few,” said the association, some of whose members are now run by second-, third- and fourth-generation entrepreneurs.
In 2013, veteran undertaker Roland Tay, 73, the founder of Direct Funeral Services, handed over the reins to his daughter, Ms Jenny Tay, 34.
Mr Tay had operated his funeral business as a sole proprietorship, which he started in the 1990s.
Ms Tay set improvements in motion: Among other things, the firm put in place rigorous standard operating procedures and underwent rebranding. Its pool of full-time workers also grew from about five to 65.
Away from family-owned businesses, younger professionals — including those with some years of experience in the sector — are also starting their own firms.
Mr Zhuo Weijie, 32, set foot in the industry about five years ago as an odd-job undertaker for various funeral firms.
In March last year, he started New Century Funeral Services and took on jobs from friends and those in his network by tapping a pool of freelance workers. He now has five or six workers, two of whom are full-time.
Mr Zhuo said: “As freelance workers, we were unable to voice our point of view. When we set up our own company, we have more freedom to do things our way.”
Mr Ang Ziqian, deputy chairman of the Ang Chin Moh Group of Companies, said that the industry’s low barriers to entry have their pros and cons.
“We allow people who are very entrepreneurial and like the profession to join the industry,” said Mr Ang, whose group runs two licensed parlours — Ang Chin Moh Funeral Directors and Flying Home.
The downside is that some would not follow the rules governing the trade.
Mr Daniel Wong, 35, a funeral consultant at Amazing Grace Funeral, said some entrants lack experience and are unconcerned about doing things well.
Mr Ang added: “When someone doesn’t fall in line (with the rules), the rest of us suffer.”
WHAT’S DRIVING INTEREST IN THE TRADE?
Once spoken of in hushed tones and avoided by young people, the funeral trade has seen the tide turn steadily in its favour.
Mr Tan of Entrust Funeral Service said young people tend to stay in the industry because of a sense of fulfilment that other jobs cannot provide. The industry is also better managed now.
“It’s a noble job… I won’t be able to find this kind of feelings if I work elsewhere,” he said.
Others may also find that the industry gives them a chance to build a career, as there are no educational prerequisites, he said. It is also not as developed as other sectors, and there is room for businesses to expand, Mr Tan added.
Mr Zhuo of New Century Funeral Services said that as more young people helm funeral businesses, those joining the industry have more opportunities to learn from a younger group of industry leaders.
“Ten years ago, what (the industry seniors) did was they reprimanded you and not many youngsters were able to take it,” he said.
Mr Teo of the Singapore Funeral Company said that the sector’s improved image was the result of a years-long effort by businesses to brand and package their services, introduce technology, and change the way funeral services are presented and conducted.
The industry is now more “service-oriented”, he said.
He noted that young people join the industry for various reasons. “Some of them just want a job that is meaningful and different from an 8-to-5 job,” he added.
The funeral trade used to be seen as a profession of last resort. While some still join the sector out of desperation, he said such workers would not last in the industry, which operates round-the-clock, including on weekends and public holidays.
Agreeing, Mr Ang said that sentiments towards the trade — once viewed as an “outcast job” — had changed radically.
From 2004 to 2009, Mr Ang said he received just five job applications every year for operational roles, such as funeral directing or embalming. He now gets at least five resumes every month.
ISSUES FACING THE INDUSTRY
As the industry evolves on the back of heightened interest from the younger generation, it has made strides towards professionalising its workers and raising the quality of services.
But standards remain uneven.
The success of such efforts hinges on various factors, not least the resources companies have at their disposal.
Unsurprisingly, the established players tend to have more comprehensive systems for training and development. Meanwhile, workers in other firms languish without proper training.
Lack of training: Most funeral workers acquire the tools of the trade on the job, and training standards vary across companies.
Employees at Direct Funeral Services are put through training that spans the “A to Z of funeral work” from embalming to logistics and operations, said Mr Tay.
At the Ang Chin Moh Group of Companies, there is also a range of training programmes for employees, who first undergo an orientation, and are trained in transferring, cleaning and dressing the bodies of clients and applying make-up as well as in serving bereaved families. They also learn about diseases and precautions when handling the remains of those with infectious diseases.
But some workers in other firms receive less training.
Mr Tan of Entrust Funeral Service said that he does not send his 10 staff members for courses as their jobs are mostly logistics-based. Employees carry out tasks based on instructions.
At New Century Funeral Services, Mr Zhuo said he, too, does not train his employees since they are already familiar with the tasks at hand. “But sometimes when there are things that we see that can be improved, we will let them know.”
At present, the profession lacks a standard course for funeral directors.
Mr Chen Jiaxi, a former acting operations manager at Ang Chin Moh Funeral Directors, described the lack of formal training for funeral workers as an institutional problem.
“We are a developed nation without a mortuary college,” said Mr Chen, 34, who left the industry last year and is now a corporate investigator at a research consultancy.
Colleges in the United States, Canada, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand, among others, offer programmes that lead to degrees, diplomas or certificates in mortuary science and funeral service.
In New Zealand, there are no specific requirements to qualify as a funeral director, but aspiring professionals may enrol in funeral directing and embalming courses if they are at least 20 years old, employed in the industry and sponsored by their employers, and have worked in a funeral home for at least a year.
So far, funeral directors here who wish to be certified have had to turn to overseas colleges.
Ms Ang Jolie Mei, 39, managing director of The Life Celebrant, did a two-year course at Mount Royal University in Canada to become a certified funeral director. She completed the programme via distance learning in 2012.
It taught her how to manage conflicts within grieving families as well as how to handle the media during high-profile funerals — skills that she has applied to funerals here. “The certification helped me a lot,” she said.
Apart from the absence of a training programme for funeral workers, Mr Chen said Singapore lacks a nationally recognised code of conduct for the profession.
At present, AFD has a code setting out the conduct expected of its members providing funeral and bereavement services — but its membership is just a fraction of the industry.
The code, which covers matters such as client confidentiality and the provision of advice on funeral services, is “too skimpy”, said Mr Chen.
Nevertheless, NEA said in response to TODAY’s queries that it encourages all funeral directors here to conduct their businesses in accordance with the association’s code.
Lack of space to expand: Funeral businesses also lament the dearth of sites parcelled out by NEA for funeral parlours. This, they said, impairs their growth and ability to improve their services and standards.
Right now, licensed funeral parlours are located at six sites — mainly at Geylang Bahru, Sin Ming Drive and Toa Payoh Industrial Park, with others in Tampines Link, Lavender Street and Upper Serangoon Road.
While NEA has announced five sites — in Bidadari, Ang Mo Kio, Bukit Batok, Mandai and Woodlands — that will be developed over the next decade or so, firms said the schedule was too long and called on the agency to speed up development.
Mr Vincent Ng, 42, director of A.Life Grad Funeral Services LLP, said he would like to have his own embalming facility, but space is limited.
His firm uses an embalming room in Sin Ming that is tapped by various firms.
“The embalming room is in a mess … you may see four or five bodies (at one time),” he said.
Mr Tan of Entrust Funeral Service, which has an office in Yishun, said he cannot display caskets there and welcomes having a store of his own.
“I am unable to expand my business in certain areas because of this,” he said.
Mr Zhuo, whose New Century Funeral Services is based in Bedok, said that because of limited space, he has had to keep his supplies, such as funeral reception tables, at a storage space in Marymount.
On the industry’s suggestion to accelerate development, NEA said that while there is a planned development schedule for the new funeral parlours, it would make adjustments where necessary “if projected demand is expected to exceed supply, based on the latest updates on the planning parameters over the next 10 years”.
Among the five new locations, the site in Woodlands will be the first to be launched for development around the middle of this year. “We will monitor the demand for funeral space, adjust the timelines if necessary, and launch the new funeral parlour sites progressively over the next couple of years,” NEA added.
WAYS TO UPLIFT THE TRADE
To raise standards, funeral businesses said Singapore needs a formal course for funeral directors, which could lead to licensing.
Others are in favour of raising the barriers to entry by imposing basic requirements before a person can start a funeral business.
Standard training leading to licensing: Most industry players interviewed suggested that AFD, working with NEA and educational institutions, could start a programme to groom funeral professionals.
Mr Calvin Tang, 44, assistant general manager of the Singapore Casket, said that the bigger market players in AFD could share resources to train committed professionals who join the industry.
Mr Alex Tan, 29, an independent funeral director who received his grounding in the trade at Ang Chin Moh Funeral Directors, suggested that experienced professionals could conduct this course.
Scholars from Taiwan and Malaysia could be invited to teach students about customs and beliefs, too. “It will uplift the funeral trade,” he said.
Formal training could count towards a licence for funeral directors, suggested Mr Teo of the Singapore Funeral Company, who noted that professionals in Taiwan need a licence to practise as funeral directors.
In 2014, Taiwan began issuing funeral director licences as part of the government’s efforts to protect consumers and raise the quality of funerary services. At that time, 16 colleges and universities offered related courses, news site Taiwan Today reported.
Even so, some firms here noted that certification is not a cure-all.
Mr Zhuo said that elements of the vocation, such as customs and religious practices, cannot be learnt from books. “It would be better with on-the-ground training,” he said.
Responding to the suggestion for more training, NEA said employers have largely provided new employees with on-the-job training. This has served the needs of the industry so far.
“But we will be working with the industry to strengthen this further by identifying and developing the skill sets needed by the industry,” NEA said.
“In areas where there is environmental hygiene impact, such as embalming services and premises, where a licensing framework is already in place, we are working with (AFD) to review how standards can be further strengthened, drawing on the expertise and contributions of industry players to build stronger capabilities.”
NEA said it has also received feedback that while there is no shortage of embalmers in Singapore, few among them are locals owing to the lack of training opportunities.
“We will review with (AFD) on how to offer assistance to locals who wish to practise as embalmers,” said the agency.
Freelance embalmer Queenie Ng, 37, who obtained a diploma in embalming from the Philippines, said offering training here would make it easier for those wishing to become embalmers, but she wondered if there would be enough demand to sustain it.
Some people still see embalming as a “dirty job”, she said.
For a course aimed at funeral directors to materialise, AFD said that there must be commitment from everyone in the funeral profession.
“Our established members are keenly aware of education and upgrading, and make full use of lull periods in activity by investing in employee training for their full-time staff,” it said.
In devising a course, the association said the challenges include agreeing on the syllabi that all funeral professionals must undergo to achieve certification and the availability of qualified teachers.
AFD noted that Ang Chin Moh Foundation, a charity that raises awareness about end-of-life conversations in Singapore, had engaged an institution of higher learning in an attempt to develop a course on funerals and embalming.
“However, this did not go beyond the working-level stage, as the institution was of the opinion that parents and the public would not support such a course of study and that the demand will not be cost-effective to run it,” the association said.
Raise barriers to entry: The industry’s low barriers to entry mean that “any Tom, Dick or Harry” including newcomers can establish a funeral service, said Mr Tang of the Singapore Casket.
He suggested that those wishing to start a funeral firm must first have an office, a full-time embalmer, an embalming theatre and a certain number of full-time employees.
NEA and the association could discuss how to put these requirements in place, Mr Tang said.
MORE REGULATIONS ‘MAY LEAD TO HIGHER COSTS’
In response, NEA said it was prepared to consider more regulations where needed.
“But the trade-off of potentially higher costs, which will eventually be passed on to the families, will have to be carefully assessed,” the agency said.
Mr Ang of the Ang Chin Moh Group of Companies agreed, saying that regulations preventing firms from entering the industry would hurt consumers by potentially raising costs and prolonging waits during times of grief.
In the meantime, NEA said it would review workflows at the licensed funeral parlours with embalming facilities to identify areas for improvement and roll out guidelines to raise standards of funerary services.
To appreciate the problems affecting the industry, Mr Chen suggested that NEA appoint an independent committee to review potential gaps in the profession, and in existing procedures and guidelines.
This could lead to a robust code of conduct that licensees and operators must follow, he said.
8 COMPLAINTS LAST YEAR: CASE
As far as statistics on complaints go, consumers do not appear hugely dissatisfied with funeral services.
Over the past three years, NEA said it had received four pieces of feedback about embalming work. Two cases were about access control and process issues in the embalming room, and one was related to improper disposal of embalming waste.
There was one case about embalming work done by suspected illegal embalmers, but this was found to be unsubstantiated, the agency said in a response published in The Straits Times’ Forum page in December last year.
Meanwhile, the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) received at least 11 complaints about funeral-related services in the last three years — eight of them in 2019.
The complaints were about overcharging, sales tactics and misleading claims, said its executive director Loy York Jiun.
Mr Teo of the Singapore Funeral Company suggested that all funeral firms be accredited under CaseTrust, a scheme by Case for fair trading practices. Among other things, CaseTrust should bind accredited companies to price guidelines for basic funeral services, he said.
Right now, three funeral service providers, Casket Fairprice, The Life Celebrant and Unity Casket Funeral Planner, are accredited under CaseTrust’s “storefront” accreditation scheme. Under the scheme, applicants must commit to clear, ethical and transparent communication, a dispute resolution process, and fair business practices.
Case president Lim Biow Chuan said the association would be happy to devise an accreditation scheme for the funeral industry if firms are found to be taking advantage of consumers.
But he noted that Case is not a regulator, and if firms breach their commitments, the only recourse is to remove their accreditation.
To help the public make informed choices on funerary services, NEA said it has made more information available to raise consumer awareness and increase transparency in the after-death industry, and it would do more in this area.
“With our ageing population, and growing demand for after-death services and facilities, it will be helpful if each of us can be more aware of the after-death arrangements available and make our wishes known to family members early,” the agency added.
“NEA will continue to study how we can raise consumer awareness of the after-death industry, and work closely with (AFD) on improving training standards and process workflow within the industry.”
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