Location, Lease and Legislation: The future of the funeral profession in Singapore

The Problem

In a letter (“Show the dead more respect”, ST, 20 May 2019) to the Straits Times forum published on 20 May 2019, Mr Sunil Kumar bemoaned the state of funeral facilities in Singapore and the less than dignified manner in which his late mother was handled.

“My mother’s body was kept in a unit on a metal tray, which was also a bathing bay, and it was uncovered. Across her were the bodies of two other women. Only their faces were covered, with a flimsy plastic bag. [. . .] It was the only place available to embalm the body and give it a shower.

When efforts were made to relocate his late mother to a more decent location at a “funeral parlour two doors down”, it “had no shower facilities available” and Mr Kumar’s late mother had to be transferred back to that first unit that caused him so much distress in the first place. Certainly a disturbing, disconcerting and agonising experience. Mr Kumar called for the government to “provide a location where bodies are properly respected and families can clean and shower their loved ones in a respectful manner before they embark on their final journey.”

Three days later on 23 May 2019, another forum letter (“Revamp area where funeral companies are located”, The Straits Times, 23 May 2019) relating to the decrepit state of affairs at Geylang Bahru industrial estate where some of the funeral companies are presently located was also published. Mr V. Balu recalled a similar ordeal in 2015 after his late father’s death. He bluntly stated that “cleanliness was not observed at all” and sought “a complete revamp.”

A week after this initial forum letter was published, there has thus far been an almost muted silence from the collective funeral profession at large. The Association that purports to “promote high standards for the provision of funeral services with the utmost respect for the dead and for bereaved families” and to “ensure minimum standards are observed and to regulate and discipline the members of the Association” registers a deafening silence.

Three days after the forum letter was published, an article (“The Two Faces of the Funeral Business”, Supernatural Confessions, 23 May 2019) was published depicting a completely different environment at the premises of The Life Celebrant.

“The cafe exterior, the warm lighting, the table ornaments, all these were designed to give comfort for the grieving. The high tech shower facility resembles more of a Jacuzzi and looks inviting enough for me to consider trying it out.”

In a posting on its Facebook page, The Life Celebrant juxtaposed this difference with the following comment:

Customers currently have a choice to shop around the different funeral operators and pick an affordable option with no frills services or a premium one that provides a complete experience.

The Life Celebrant should rightfully be commended for providing a direct response to the two forum letters and their commitment to uplifting the standards of the funeral profession through their spa-like facility aptly named “Showers of Love” that costs about $1,500 according to a Straits Times article back in January 2017. However, the creation of a dichotomy between a “no-frills service” and a “premium” one is problematic, to say the least as it not only seems to communicate a narrow array of choices for the consumer and romanticise businesses’ pursuit of dignity at the price of a premium price tag.

But there are more fundamental issues at play here. If continued to be left unresolved it will mean that dignity is but a self-perpetuating reality for funeral operators and on a national level – without more strategic thinking behind the future of the funeral profession in Singapore – render the death care needs of Singaporeans inadequate to say the very least.

Location

In a reply (“New funeral parlour sites will see better after-death facilities”, The Straits Times, 25 May 2019) to Mr Sunil Kumar and Mr V. Balu on 25 May 2019, the National Environmental Agency (NEA), the governmental authority responsible for the licensing of funeral parlours and the regulation of after-death services in Singapore assured that NEA “will be launching five new funeral parlour sites for development over the next 10 years or so. These are all dedicated, purpose-built facilities and are part of NEA’s efforts to improve the after-death facilities and service delivery in Singapore.”

61446383_1145690315611000_978472736340836352_o.jpgNEA had announced in January this year that four sites have been identified to house and distribute funeral parlour services at different parts of the island along geographical lines. This is on top of recent plans to introduce inland scattering services for cremated remains and the new sea burial facility at Tanah Merah by next year. Such commendable moves are however blunted by the choice of locations to site funeral parlours in Singapore. All four sites are located either within industrial estates or far away from the living population.

Present day Singapore locates death and the management of death in zones meant for light industries. Funeral parlours, the agents for the management of death are situated within industrial estates under the impact-zoning scheme, “Business 1 Use”. Essentially, industries for B1 use “areas used or intended to be used mainly for clean industry, light industry, warehouse, public utilities, and telecommunication uses and other public installations for which the relevant authority does not impose a nuisance buffer greater than 50m.” In other words, with the designation of the funeral trade under the B1 zoning scheme, the authorities are sufficiently satisfied that the funeral trade is isolated and secluded [from the living] that the authorities do not have to impose a nuisance buffer greater than 50m. In other words, the living and the dead are sufficiently separated as not to cause nuisance and discomfort to one another.

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While NEA has publicly stated that these new after-death facilities would be an improvement from the present facilities at Geylang Bahru industrial estate, Sin Ming industrial estate, and Toa Payoh industrial estate, this will do little to assuage and deal directly with the “Not-in-my-backyard” syndrome as pointed out by the founder of Ang Chin Moh Foundation, Mr Ang Ziqian in a forum letter (“Siting after-death facilities: Blame Nimby syndrome”, The Straits Times, 29 May 2019) published on 29 May 2019. ”

In fact, the dislocation of the intimate relationship between the living and the dead continues. In other words, present attitudes towards death and funeral services will continue to persist despite new investments being put into improving after-death services in Singapore by the public and private sector. These new investments were not only meant to meet the yearly increase in demand but also to reshape existing stereotypes and misperceptions towards death and funeral services in Singapore. The seemingly progressive intent of the authorities to serve bereaved families along geographical lines will be lost in the choice of locations. In fact, present attitudes isolating death “out of sight and out of mind” is not normal.

Lease

For a profession that is made up essentially of small and medium-sized enterprises, resources are limited and thus any investments made have to make basic business sense. This existential issue faced by funeral owners in Singapore is compounded by the present reality that there have been no new long-term leases available in Singapore for the last 20 years or more for funeral companies. A lease of 3 years limits the commitment on the part of businesses to upgrade their existing facilities and to invest in new infrastructure projects. In the near future, a public-private collaboration where the government takes on the role of building critical infrastructure assets whilst funeral operators manages the facility with a long term lease would be a step in the right direction.

Legislation

Apart from the fact that Singapore lacks a legislative framework for the funeral profession, Singapore and Singaporeans must begin to see funeral services and the profession as an “essential [public] service” that is consummate with the critical role it plays in our daily lives, a recognition that it is sorely absent in the national conversation and the law today. It is thus important to include funeral and after-death services as “essential services” under the law. In fact, such a redefinition may be the first step towards reshaping present mentalities towards death and funerals amongst Singaporeans. We must not only have the gumption but the creativity to imagine situating funeral parlours and related services within the communities, easily accessible to all. Within the context of a rapidly aging population, this has to make sense. A pioneering spirit to deal directly with our taboos whilst enabling a more community-centric grief and bereavement support in Singapore is sought needed in the parliamentary conversation today.

The crux of the matter is this. Funeral and after-death services have to be viewed less from a public health perspective – an inheritance from the British – but more of a population issue that should rightfully be reflected in future population white papers. In fact, we must be ready to go as far as exploring the need to define funeral and after-death services and facilities as “residential use” under present and future land use masterplans. The death of our loved ones and the future of the funeral profession is, in fact, a national development issue. At the same time, we must acknowledge that health care, in fact, the beginning of death care. There is also an urgent need to resolve the human resource needs of the profession. Setting up a mortuary course has and must be the medium to long term objective of the Ministry of Education. Death is also a health care, workforce development, and an education issue.

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Singaporeans should be appalled and outraged at the state and the cost of funeral and after-death services in Singapore. For instance, it would set back a family in Singapore between $1,100 and $3,200 per day for the use of funeral halls in Singapore and this excludes the fees for the engagement of a funeral company and the services they provide. Dignity cannot come with an exorbitant price tag and it cannot be just the favourite public relations catchphrase for funeral operators. Without a detailed study of the profession, no one would really know the malaise that has set in within the profession, even for the most experienced of funeral owners and professionals.

For far too long, this ecosystem is a victim of tribal tendencies, constant fragmentation and the low standards of accountability and transparency inherent within. Coupled with the death illiteracy of Singaporeans, it makes for a potent and deeply upsetting concoction. The experiences of Mr Sunil Kumar and Mr V. Balu are in fact manifestations of a larger systemic problem. But as funeral professionals and members of the Association of Funeral Directors, regardless of what we may say to the contrary, we cannot deny our culpability.

Every bereaved family entrusts their most beloved person and/ or pet to us and this profession has a sacred duty to do better and arise from our complacent and self-induced slumber. We only have one chance to get it right.

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