Heads buried ten feet under

I think one of the important things we want to recognise is that after-death facilities are important social infrastructure [. . .] the number of resident deaths is likely to double, we have to prepare now. We have to make sure that we provide for the spaces and give ample notice to everyone who is, in a way, affected by the presence of such social facilities.

Minister Masagos Zulkifli, Parliament No: 13, Session No: 2, Vol. No: 94, Sitting No: 90, 12 February 2019

In a reply to Member of Parliament Murali Pillai on his residents’ concerns regarding the location of a funeral parlour within his constituency in Bukit Batok in early 2019, Minister for Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli pointed out that within the larger context of a rapidly ageing population, after-death facilities are “important social facilities.”

Practitioners in the funeral trade have been keen to position funeral services and facilities as “essential services [to the community]”. As Minister Masagos stated in an earlier speech, “Every Singaporean must play our role – resist the “Not in My Back Yard” tendency to shove critical but undesirable [public] facilities [away].”

Some in the funeral trade such as Mr Ang Ziqian and Ms Angjolie Mei has gone further by describing Singapore as a “first-world country with third-world death care services.” For others in the business such as Ms Jenny Tay and Mr Darren Cheng from Direct Funeral Services, the profession is framed as an extension of the “hotel industry”, essentially it is a frontline service industry.

In the past decade, the funeral profession has seen the transition from one generation of funeral owners to their sons and daughters. This change of guard ushered in an apparent uptick in changes to the profession such as an increased emphasis in marketing and public relations efforts, a more professional look through the donning of uniforms, the introduction of new products and a wider range of services.

These changes are often trumpeted and advertised as innovation when it was really more of a case of piecemeal, common-sensical tweaks to an abysmal state of affairs. This new generation is well-groomed, more educated and far more articulate than their predecessors and these small successes have in turn attracted more millennials with better educational qualifications to partake in this profession.

Beyond this, however, much remains lacking and the Association of Funeral Directors (Singapore) should and must take the lead. The following comments by Ms Tay in 2016 demonstrated in open view the sad state of affairs in an Association that till date do not see a need to be accountable and transparent to the larger public.

“The Association used to be against the idea of CaseTrust accreditation. But after relentless persuasion, the members were willing to sit down this year and listen to a presentation about it. It’s a sign that I’ve got my foot in the door.” – Jenny Tay, Her World interview, 2016.

While Ms Tay was attempting to portray her tenacity and entrepreneurial streak through her above comments in an interview in 2016, it unwittingly shows how far behind the Association has been [and continues to be].

The Association of Funeral Directors needs to get its act together – and urgently that is – lest the very members who preached about their “reforms”, “innovation” and “professionalism” are the very people who are stymying the growth of this essential public service.

The day that they sit comfortably in their own shadows and internalised their own rhetoric without a tinge of the irony of their own hypocrisy is the day that bereaved families in Singapore will continue to experience the snail-pace development of standards across the profession, from the daily operations to the ethical principles of this noblest of profession. Piecemeal changes continue to be masqueraded as “reforms” to serve narrow corporate and business interests.

Dignity is that narrative but dignity is far from the reality in 2019.

The irony, the hypocrisy cannot be starker when at the point that more cooperation between owners, and when more external professional expertise is sorely required that we see a more fragmented and tribal industry and self-absorbed players who repeatedly professed tens of decades of industry experience as some form of a natural right to hoodwink a death-illiterate society. The very people who are responsible for the present state of affairs are also the very people who are proclaiming solutions for the lack of standards that we see today.

Given the potential inherent in this profession and the rhetoric and narratives that have been consciously and sub-consciously articulated in the public sphere that sought to place this profession in a far better place than what the present reality is, these criticisms are no doubt fair. More importantly, we have failed to serve the very people that many in this profession have pledged rhetorically to serve: bereaved families in Singapore.

As we speak, the Association continues to languish in ignominy and their own worlds of mental infighting, inaction, and it continues to be business as usual. It is, as some in the business would say, a [family] business, their family business and their narrow interests with their heads buried ten feet under.

It can start by renewing their CaseTrust certification that has since expired, or to remove this accreditation from their websites so that the public would not continue to be misled.

It does call into question whether the Association, the funeral profession, and their many owners is the solution or the source of more problems, as the funeral profession faces unprecedented challenges in the years ahead. The lack of a regulatory regime both within the profession and on a national level should worry us all, the future dead.

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