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HomesingaporeIN FOCUS: Meet the funeral director who quit teaching to comfort the...

IN FOCUS: Meet the funeral director who quit teaching to comfort the bereaved

SINGAPORE: Growing up, Ms Tan Xiaohui’s father never talked about what he did for a living, even when he had to work during festive holidays like Chinese New Year.

“He was always not around,” she said. “I don’t remember being comfortable spending time alone with my father because it used to be awkward.”

In 2015, her father got into a traffic accident. He was supposed to be hospitalised, but insisted on being discharged and went back to work immediately.

It was the June school holidays and Ms Tan, then a secondary school maths teacher, had free time. Her mother asked if she would help her father out for the rest of her break.

That was how she saw, for the first time, her father’s work as a funeral director. He helped bereaved families in their most vulnerable moments, using his empathy and expertise to bring them comfort and closure.

The holiday stint ended, and she returned to the classroom. But two years later, Ms Tan, 32, took an unexpected turn in her career when she left teaching to join the funeral business.

Over the last few years, more people are being encouraged to embrace the idea of lifelong learning, so that if they choose to make a career switch, they are as well-placed as possible to do so.

Ms Tan broke a scholarship bond to make that switch, but in the process, found a calling that has stretched her limits, given her a sense of purpose, and brought her and her father closer together.

BATTLING THE STIGMA

Ms Tan’s father, Mr Tan Chee Tong, started volunteering at a Buddhist temple in his youth. Now 62, he was working in the import-export trade about 20 years ago when the temple asked him to help organise funerals on a voluntary basis.

He agreed, and as the years passed, gave over more of his time to death care work. He received payment only for funeral expenses, but otherwise gave freely of his time and energy.

“At that time I was handling everything by myself, so it became quite tiring. Because many traffic accidents would happen,” he told CNA in Mandarin.

Even when he decided to take a break from volunteering, families continued to approach him for help with wakes and funerals. There weren’t enough people who could and would do such work.

Her father was organising so many funerals at the time that he was sleeping only three to four hours a night. Ms Tan’s mother again asked her to help him out, if only to make sure he didn’t doze off while driving.

It has now been six years since she made the switch from classroom to funeral home.

When someone dies, funeral directors are the people who usher the bereaved through the process of mourning. 

The job is heavy on logistics, but more importantly, on emotion.

“You’re there not just as a funeral director, you’re also there to calm them down, to provide them support,” said Ms Tan.

Sometimes, she will receive calls from people worried about funeral details even before their loved ones have died.

When that happens, she tells them to seize the remaining time and concentrate on spending it together – administrative matters can wait.

Her journey with the family usually starts when she goes to the mortuary to collect the body.

A typical Singaporean Chinese wake lasts three or five days. Before that, the body must be sent for embalming, permits need to be obtained for the wake, slots need to be booked for cremation and interment of ashes, and the wake and funeral need to be organised.

A funeral director does all that, and consults the family on religious needs and other preferences. Did they or the deceased want a maximalist or minimalist funeral? How should the body be made up and dressed? How do they want to memorialise their loved one?

The naysayers did help in one way – strengthening her resolve to stick to her choice.

“Since young I’ve always been very open to challenges. And the more someone tells me that you cannot do this, I will do it,” she said.

Ms Tan has found that doing the work is the best way to change people’s preconceptions.

“I think what really overturned this discrimination is when you show them that you are capable of handling the dead bodies as well, and you are capable of doing what they feel that you cannot do,” she said.

“Sometimes the deceased can be in a state of decomposition already, so they feel like you cannot handle the sight of it, or you cannot handle the stench of it. When you are able to do it, it slowly changes their perspective.”

Whether you have a university degree does not matter, she said.

“In this industry, for you to last, there are only two things – you must have a heart of empathy, and you (must) really genuinely want to serve the family.

“Without these two qualities, it’s not possible for you to last through the sleepless nights and all those mental challenges that you face.”

DO NOT GIVE IN TO SELF-DOUBT

Ms Tan was apprehensive about changing jobs at first because she enjoyed parts of being a teacher. Becoming a funeral director also strayed from the career milestones she used to imagine herself hitting by a certain age.

But seeing how death impacts everyone, regardless of their achievements in life, and how her work helped families to move forward, convinced her of the new path she had chosen.

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