How does it feel to be surrounded by death every day? CLEO speaks to three women who are in the business of caring for the deceased or dying, to find out why they chose this seemingly grim calling.
Someone told me before that
you cannot carry a cofﬁn alone,
and I think that’s the attitude that
everyone in this industry has.
Wong Xiao Hui, 23, Pallbearer
Unlike her peers, Xiao Hui knew she wanted to join the funeral business since she was a teenager. It might seem morbid that a 14-year-old would even think about this, considering it’s still a taboo topic for a lot of people, but Xiao Hui knew it would be a meaningful job after watching a Japanese drama called The Embalmer.
“I knew then that it was my calling,” she says. A decade later, she applied for an internship at Direct Funeral Services.
“I didn’t do anything about it earlier because I thought that my age was going to be an issue, and I didn’t have any relevant experience,” admits the undergraduate, who’s a final-year economics student at NUS. “But then last year, there was a lot of news about young women in the funeral business – Nicole the embalmer from Serenity Casket, Kelly the undertaker from Hiap Hin Undertaker, and Glorianne, an intern at Direct Funeral Services. That gave me the push to apply for the internship earlier this year.”
Having just started, Xiao Hui is currently a pallbearer under Direct Funeral Services’ internship programme. During this time, she’ll be learning the ropes of the trade – from setting up the venue to conducting religious rites. She hopes to progress to embalming after completing her internship.
Her family isn’t squeamish when it comes to industries that deal with death – in fact, two of her siblings are nurses, and her mum, who volunteers regularly at a hospital, had also harboured dreams of becoming an embalmer. So it’s no suprise that her family is supportive of her career choice.
“I think I entered the industry at a very good time,” Xiao Hui muses. “The industry is very small, so everyone has been really helpful and friendly – even people from other companies, although we’re technically competitors. Someone told me before that you cannot carry a coffin alone, and I think that’s the attitude that everyone in this industry has.”
Naturally, she sees tragedies on an almost daily basis. The cases that affect her the most are the suicides, which hit close to home because she has a relative who is suffering from depression and suicidal tendencies.
She recounts setting up a funeral for her very first suicide case. It was for a woman who had jumped from the 42nd floor. She couldn’t be embalmed because of her injuries, and her family had requested an open casket.
“I remember holding her photo, and looking at it. I couldn’t tell that it was the same person in the coffin,” she recalls, with a hint of sadness in her voice.
“But because I see death every day, it has really made me cherish my time with my family and friends.”
Lee Jing Ru, 26, Senior Staff Nurse
As a palliative care nurse at Dover Park Hospice, 26-yearold Jing Ru doesn’t nurse her patients back to health. Her job is to make sure her patients are as comfortable as they can be in their finals days. Palliative care is provided to people who have lifelimiting illnesses, so most of Jing Ru’s patients are in the final stages of organ failure, or terminal diseases like cancer.
“Some people might feel like they’re failing a family member if they’re not giving them active or curative treatment, but when facing a life-limiting illness, people need to know that palliative care is an option too.”
Jing Ru admits that even though she’s been a palliative care nurse for close to five years now, it’s still tough to deal with her patients’ deaths.
A patient who made a big impact on her is a lady in her late-40s who was recently admitted into the hospice because she’s in the final stages of a kidney disease.
“I went to check on her one day and I realised that she was getting weaker. She couldn’t even speak, but she found the strength to hold my hand,” Jing Ru shares. “So I sat there with her for 15 minutes, just holding her hand.”
When asked why that patient stood out to her, Jing Ru says that maybe it’s because the patient was single and relatively young, and had shared with her a list of things that she had yet to do. Travel was at the top of that list, but she couldn’t do that anymore because of her condition.
As heartbreaking as it was to hear, this is what a day at work is like for Jing Ru. She stresses that being in this line of work requires a strong support system – especially when there are challenging patients to care for.
“Some people can’t come to terms with their conditions,” she says. “And because some types of medication are sedative, we have patients who refuse to take them because they’re afraid that they won’t wake up again if they fall asleep.” When they refuse the medication, the patients have to deal with excruciating pain, which Jing Ru says is heartbreaking to watch.
Most people on their deathbeds have told her to spend more time with her loved ones. “My patients tell me to never be stingy with my love. And they say things like, ‘if you love someone, you have to let them know.’ It really makes you think about how you’re spending your time.”
This job really puts things into
perspective. Sometimes, I wonder,
what if it’s me on the table next?”
Joanne Ong, 24, Undertaker
Technically, Joanne is an undertaker. But if you ask her, she’d tell you she’s an angel. A “Showers of Love” angel, that is.
The Life Celebrant, the funeral home where Joanne works, specialises in a service called Showers of Love – a process where family members of the deceased can help with the preparation of the body before it’s placed in the casket. Staff members like Joanne will be on hand to help with the washing of their hair and body, and applying makeup.
The facility where they conduct this service resembles a spa, and Joanne said that being able to do one last thing for the deceased can be very therapeutic for some families.
The 24-year-old understands just how important this process can be. Her own mum passed away two years ago due to cancer, and one of her biggest regrets was not giving her mum a better send-off.
“I didn’t know how to handle it. My mum didn’t tell me what she wanted, so I just googled for a funeral director and went with the top search result,” Joanne recounts. She remembers meeting the funeral director, and immediately being presented with packages and costs.
The last straw was when she saw her mum’s body after the embalming process. She didn’t look like herself, and was wearing the clothes she had worn to the hospital even though Joanne had handed them her mum’s favourite dress. When her family tried to get them to change it, they were told that nothing could be done.
“Nobody else should go through what I did,” says Joanne, firmly.
That same year, someone Joanne knew told her to try for a job at The Life Celebrant, and the rest is history.
One of her most memorable cases involved a family who had lost their mum, as their youngest daughter was around Joanne’s age when she has gone through the same thing.
On the last day of the funeral, the youngest daughter broke down uncontrollably. Joanne noticed she had been folding paper cranes at the wake, so she helped her to decorate the casket with them.
“This job really puts things into perspective. Sometimes, I wonder, what if it’s me on the table next? What if it’s my dad sending me off? What if it’s someone I know?”
Photography Tan Wei Te Makeup Felicia Ng/PaletteInc using Nars Hair Jane Lau/PaletteInc using Keune Haircosmetics Text Sophie Hong.