This is an interview series with funeral directors in Singapore. Read about how they help you through a time of bereavement and get tips for choosing one when the need arises.
Angjolie Mei of The Life Celebrant tells Obits.sg how a funeral can be a celebration of life.
Why did you become a funeral director?
I became an accidental funeral director after my father died in 2004. I quit my job at a logistics company to help maintain his business along with my mother out of filial piety, but my interest grew when I realised there were many things I wanted to do for the dearly departed and their families to raise standards in the death care industry.
In 2008, I attended a funeral expo and exhibition in Hong Kong and my eyes were opened. I saw how much more advanced other countries were in their approach to funerals.
One memorable funeral in New Zealand officiated by a funeral celebrant changed my perception. After I helped to embalm an old lady, the funeral director invited me to attend her funeral. As she laid in the casket, she had her favourite pink lipstick on and a matching pink scarf around her neck. The programme sheets for guests contained the order of service, a list of eulogists, her photographs, her favourite poem, and a thank-you note from the family.
At the service, the funeral celebrant spoke about the old lady and invited others to the podium to describe her, how she made a difference in their lives and why she was special. Laughter and smiles broke through tears as memories were shared. I discovered immense meaning in that experience and saw how healing it was for the attendees.
After that occasion, I decided to set up The Life Celebrant in 2010. I didn’t just want to organise traditionally sombre funerals, but I wanted to organise meaningful ones to celebrate the lives of the departed and commemorate their life stories. I acquired the relevant certifications and became Singapore’s first and only certified ‘Life Celebrant’ to date.
My company, The Life Celebrant, is known as 心篇章 in Mandarin. It translates into “Chapters from the Heart”. We believe that everyone has a life story, and these stories are worth sharing, telling, and should be remembered. Death should be an occasion to celebrate the life of a person.
What qualifications do you need to become a funeral director?
There is no specific requirement for certification to be a funeral director in Singapore. But I decided to pursue my Certification in Funeral Directing from Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada and Certificate in Funeral Celebrant from Australian Celebrations Training, Sydney, Australia in 2010. Personally, I think that the most important qualification to be in the funeral industry is to have a passion for this job, genuine care and empathy for people.
This is not a fancy, well-paying job. The hours are long and it can be emotionally draining for newcomers. Many who have tried to work in this industry without the heart to serve people found that the job quickly wears them down. And to be an embalmer, you need to be certified according to regulations.
How long have you been in your role? Why did you choose to be in this profession?
I have been in this role for over 15 years. When I joined the industry in 2004, it was to help my father’s funeral business. But I had a strong passion and compassion for people and saw many aspects of the death care industry that could be improved.
A funeral isn’t just putting the departed in the coffin and sending them off. There is so much more. I look at a funeral as life’s graduation ceremony – how will you want to commemorate the life of the departed on his final day? Funeral directors can help the departed and the family create a meaningful and memorable service so that visitors will have beautiful memories of the legacy that the deceased left behind. Every funeral teaches me valuable lessons about life. I stayed in this role to create the change that I want to see in the death care industry.
Describe a typical day on the job for yourself and your team.
It’s hard to describe a “typical” day as the job is full of surprises, but my team and I are always prepared for any urgent phone calls. When a call comes, we have a one-hour response time to get to the family, whether we are at dinner or in the movies.
We handle everything from embalming of the departed, cleaning and preparing the departed for the casket, setting up the wake, and seeing to the needs of the grieving. We make sure the wishes of the departed are fulfilled, attend to the immense amount of administrative work, including scheduling transport, cremation, ash scattering and other post-funeral matters. People think that planning for a wedding or a VIP event is challenging but these events are usually planned ahead of time.
For a funeral, we have to be meticulous and quick on our feet to get everything ready within one day. That’s how we work for all our clients. The departed are all VIPs at their funeral and there is absolutely no room for mistakes.
Which part of your job do you find most satisfying?
Serving the needs of the departed and caring for the grieving. While we don’t get direct thanks from the departed, it makes my day to know what we do helps lessen the stress faced by families in their time of sorrow.
The hugs and compliments from the family and funeral attendees mean so much to my team and I. It testifies to the good work we have done for them. In my book, Dying To Meet You, Confessions of a Funeral Director, I wrote about some special moments on the job that have touched me deeply. One of them was a six-year-old girl who knew she had limited time on earth and she wanted to plan her own “princess” theme funeral. We helped her every step of the way, even down to choosing her photo for the invite, the dress she would wear on her final journey, to the flowers she would like at her funeral. It was a tough job, but the level of satisfaction I got from knowing that I have planned and executed a perfectly beautiful funeral for her was something money cannot buy.
My work would also not be possible without my beloved work family. Their dedication and heartfelt effort to serve families often lead them to miss their own family gatherings and work long and sleepless hours in the night.
Which part of your job do you find most challenging?
During different phases of my journey, I faced many challenges. I began with zero knowledge about the funeral industry, as I never had the opportunity to learn from my father before he died. No one else showed me the ropes. Initially, my mum helped me, but there were certain parts of the business she didn’t understand, such as the operational aspects.
I had to contend with taboos around death too, especially with regard to women working in the funeral industry. Obviously, I do not look like a typical funeral director, and I had to earn the team’s trust by working with them in all aspects of the role, including transferring the deceased from the mortuary to the funeral home. It was very challenging being a woman in a man’s world.
I also challenged the old ways of doing things. Outsiders may think that being the daughter of a funeral director would have exposed me to all types of opportunities, but that never happened because my parents did not want this life for us. Death was a taboo topic and I could not find a mentor to guide me.
Handling the funerals of young children, suicide victims and motor accident victims are also big challenges. I cannot numb myself to the work or be detached from my feelings; every funeral I organise feels just like the first time and I empathise deeply with grieving family members.
If you could change something about what you do, what would that be? Why?
I can safely say that I’ve achieved the change I want to see after a decade in this business. Perhaps the other big change I would like to see taking place in this industry is that people will see this field as a viable professional career choice.
I’m also glad that people today speak more candidly about death so they can plan ahead of time for their funeral and achieve complete peace of mind for themselves and their family.
Tell us something about yourself that makes you well-suited for your role as a funeral director.
I have a gift for noticing the details others take for granted. And these smallest details make the biggest difference to the overall experience. For example, we introduced the folding of paper cranes to family members as an alternative to the traditional option for visitors to write their well-wishes in a memorial book at a funeral.
The Life Celebrant invites mourners to write their messages on pieces of origami paper and fold them into as many paper cranes as they want. There is a belief that cranes act as messengers to a departed soul. By writing these messages onto folded paper cranes, it is a symbolic act that the departed will receive the well-wishes. This little exercise has become a very well-received part of our funeral service.
My inspiration for these services come from much of my personal life experiences. When my father passed away, he did not plan his funeral. Neither did he buy any insurance nor leave a will. My father was the sole breadwinner in the family; he had always taken care of us.
Until I turned 23, I lived under the illusion of a perpetual security blanket. When that shattered, I was at the lowest point of my life. I had to get used to my new role in the business, and I realised then that a funeral director could support the bereaved family in many ways. Because of his death, I understood how a grieving family member felt and I sincerely wish that none of my clients has to go through what I did. That gave me the impetus to create value-added services and solutions to minimize the stress experienced by bereaved families.
In 2016, I decided to start my other business, The Life Legacy, to provide a complete solution for clients. We offer will writing services, trust services, lasting power of attorney and estate administration to help them navigate through the different stages of preplanning.
Which services are most requested for by clients?
Showers Of Love, where we provide facial and spa services for the departed, is one of our most requested services.
Our customers want to participate in this meaningful and final act of filial piety for the dearly departed, and family members help to bathe, dress and apply makeup for their loved one.
This act reflects love, respect and gratitude from the family and provides comfort and closure to them. We are also receiving more requests from clients for customised and personalised service to commemorate the life of their dearly departed.
Is there something about funeral directors that you would like clients to better understand?
In the past, the funeral industry did not attract highly-educated professionals. However, it is improving and many funeral companies are upgrading themselves. It helps to have younger and better-educated people join the industry and improve professional standards.
A good funeral director helps families get closure with a beautiful farewell for their dearly departed, leaving good memories for family members.
A poor funeral director leaves the families with a bad impression of the industry and regrets if they feel that the farewell was not a good one. Ths business operates on highly personalised service and it is important to select a trustworthy director.
Who inspires you? Why?
My parents helped to mould my character and personality and led me to the path I am on today.
I don’t have a single source of inspiration, but people’s lives inspire me. Even the old man picking cardboard on the street or the aunty who sells tissue papers to take care of her mentally-challenged son can teach me so much about family and life. Through the lens of death, I know how I want to live out my life’s journey – appreciate the little things in life, cherish moments with my family and create services to help more people.
Can you give a tip or two for someone who has just lost a close family member – how should they go about shortlisting a funeral director?
My best tip would be NOT to wait till you have lost someone before looking for a funeral director. You do not want to make a rash decision under pressure.
It is prudent to do some research beforehand and meet up with a funeral director to understand the company’s services and whether the funeral director fits your requirements.
Ask to visit their office so you can see how they carry out their care services for the dearly departed. Check if the funeral director is working with a reputable funeral company or if he is an individual agent. A funeral cannot be done by one person. It has to be done by a united team. So make sure the funeral director that you engage provides the services that you ask for.
As clients, let your funeral director know your loved one’s wishes as well as your family’s desires. Work with a funeral director who can meet these wishes and is willing to go the extra mile for your family. You do not want any regrets when the funeral is not done to your expectations.