“I’m sorry for your loss” are the first words past Jenny’s lips as she answers a work call in the middle of our lunchtime interview. Someone’s uncle has just passed away. Her voice is soft and reassuring as she briefs him on what needs to be done.
“Surely you must be desensitised to news of people dying by now?” I ask her after the brief conversation. About 54 people die every day in Singapore, and the company she is managing director of, Direct Funeral Services (DFS), handles up to 14 cases daily.
“Not at all,” says the 30-year-old. “If anything, seeing death on such a regular basis makes me treasure life more. This is why I believe a funeral should be a celebration of life and handled with as much professionalism as any other important event, such as a wedding.”
“I’ve also become a lot more kiasi (Hokkien for ‘scared to die’),” she says after a pause. “I used to have things like skydiving on my bucket list, but I’ve removed it. I’m also a lot more mindful about small actions like buckling my seatbelt – it’s a habit I developed after seeing one too many fatal car accidents.”
I’m not sure kiasi is the right adjective for this woman who has handled 3,500 corpses, coffins and cremations with her team over the last three years.
She’s revamped the image of the lowly undertaker and attracted millennial workers into what was considered a sunset industry.
Jenny has also refined and reinvented the trade, moving so fast that other industry folks feel compelled to keep up with her – even if they don’t always agree with her decisions.
NEW GIRL IN AN OLD-SCHOOL BUSINESS
People don’t aspire to get into the funeral business. Many perceive it to be an old-school trade, run by “ah pek” types. There are no posh offices, luxe business trips or hip networking events. It’s an unlikely career choice
for a millennial… except that Jenny isn’t your average young woman.
For as long as she can remember, her dad has been famous. He still is. Roland Tay, 70, is practically a household name. “A generous spirit” and “a colourful undertaker” are just some of the adjectives commonly used to describe the former coffee boy who is famous for arranging free funerals for the elderly and the needy.
In the last 40 years, Roland has handled the funerals of Singapore’s most high-profile murder victims, pro bono. They include eight-year old Chinese national Huang Na, whose tiny, decomposing body was found stuffed into a cardboard box, and 22-year-old Chinese national Liu Hong Mei, whose dismembered remains were found in Kallang River.
The word “colourful” applies equally to Roland’s marital life. He was separated from Jenny’s mum (his second wife) and was living with his third wife through Jenny’s childhood and teenage years. Despite being the eldest child from Roland’s second marriage, Jenny didn’t get unrivalled fatherly love. “Most of what I knew about my dad and his job came from reading about him in the papers,” she says.
What she did have were secret monthly meet-ups with him, which Roland’s third wife wasn’t aware of. During these precious but fleeting moments, Roland would speak with deep conviction about his work. His words planted seeds of empathy in the young, impressionable Jenny, who grew to find his vocation meaningful.
“Stories about his pro bono cases always struck a chord in me, in particular Huang Na’s. My dad placed her picture and altar in his house because she didn’t have her own home in Singapore and opened it up to her relatives and members of the public… her mum was very grateful and still keeps in touch with my dad,” she says.
Roland was aware of Jenny’s growing passion for his trade and suggested that she should take a degree in embalming in London after she graduated from Nanyang Polytechnic. He later changed his mind and encouraged Jenny to get a business degree and work experience first, arguing that “outside exposure” would be beneficial.
In 2009, Jenny graduated from the University of New South Wales with a Bachelor of Commerce (majoring in marketing and management). After that, she spent four years in the marketing and advertising industry. She would have stayed on there, but one incident changed everything.
At 4pm on Boxing Day in 2012, Roland suffered a minor heart attack. By the time Jenny and Darren (her boyfriend of two years then, and now her husband) rushed to the hospital, Roland was awake in the intensive care unit with tubes sticking out of his chest, and crying. He was alone. Seeing him in such a hapless state broke Jenny’s heart. “The biggest fear faced by the elderly folks who approach my dad for help with their funerals is that they’ll die alone, without anyone’s knowledge. My dad carried the exact same fear,” she says.
That was the moment Jenny decided to become an undertaker. She saw in her father an overworked man, and wanted to share his load. Following in her footsteps was Darren, who closed his counselling practice at Camden Medical Centre. The reason? He did not want her to enter the male-dominated industry alone.
AN AILING BUSINESS
Cases at DFS have tripled since Jenny came on board – currently, they see an average of 100 to 120 cases a month – but business wasn’t rosy when she first joined the company. Roland was going through a difficult divorce from his third wife, who was involved in the business. The divorce is still pending. Their spilt drove a wedge between the staff and their suppliers. Workers who weren’t in Roland’s camp would redirect customers to competitors and “give away” items from their inventory (like funeral props) behind their backs. Some suppliers boycotted them and refused to give them advance orders when they were running low on funds.
Then there were the company’s deeprooted problems, like staff shortage – Roland only had five full-time workers – and lack of SOPs (standard operating procedures). It was heavily reliant on freelance workers who weren’t always dependable. Work was unfairly allocated (“there was no roster system, so some workers would constantly be on duty”) and service standards were inconsistent. “Everybody had their own way of doing things. There was no synergy and system,” recalls Jenny.
Instead of being discouraged, she saw an opportunity for change. But first, she gave herself time to get a good grasp of the job. “I was very stubborn about getting involved in everything. I marched into the embalming room on the first day of work, alarming an uncle who was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to handle the pungent smell of the chemicals,” says Jenny.
“I also didn’t freak out when I faced my first corpse, even though his chest was open and his skull cavity was showing. I’ve never felt fear because I see myself doing something similar to doctors and nurses: I’m a caretaker for the dead. Sometimes I’ll even talk to the corpses and say ‘Ah Ma, I’m going to help you with your makeup now, so you look good and beautiful, okay?’,” says Jenny, who oversees the makeup and look of young women, teenagers and children.
She visited wakes to observe the rituals and set-ups for different religions – there are no textbooks for such ceremonial practices. Jenny and Darren also spoke to priests, pastors and monks, and flew to Taiwan (which has a well-established death industry) for research.
In the last three years, the couple have painstakingly documented what they know and drafted SOPs for everything related to their work: religious practices, customer service, warehouse inventory management, operations… “We wanted to leave as little room as possible for human error,” Jenny explains.
She also learnt how to comfort bereaved families. “[At the start], I didn’t dare to smile, and spoke in a sombre manner. However, I realised that families feel so much more at ease with a funeral director who is approachable, friendly and comforting,” says Jenny, whose clients commonly address her as “da jie” (Mandarin for “big sister”).
Jenny was determined to work twice as hard to prove that a woman could do the job as well as a man – if not better. “I wanted to be respected as a woman and not as a woman trying to be ‘one of the boys’. Why can’t I be demure, look good and still do my job well? Industry partners and suppliers told me that they didn’t think this timid-looking woman was going to make it. But I’ve proved them wrong,” says Jenny, who took over as managing director one year later.
NEW LEASE OF LIFE
Change is always difficult, but it was especially difficult for the man who had been running his company in his own way for the last 30 years. Says Roland: “I’ve been doing this from a young age and have my own systems in place. So when Jenny came running to me wanting to change this and that, it led to heated arguments.”
Roland insisted on hiring “ready made” workers with experience, not newbies. Jenny, however, knew that the pool of seasoned workers was shrinking (and ageing), and saw the need to tap on millennials.
“When I first came in, there were no such things as career progression, company benefits or a conducive working environment. A person would be hired for a specific role and would continue to perform that role until he left the company,” says Jenny. These days, a career with DFS means you get benefits (medical insurance for yourself and your family, courses to upgrade your skills, overseas training, and so on), a chance to rise through the ranks, and an air-conditioned staff lounge with snacks and video games.
With new staff came a slew of changes like uniforms, buddy systems, overseas training trips to funeral parlours in Taiwan, and a roster to ensure fair work allocation.
To Jenny, change was the only way to move forward. But for Roland, it was a nerve-racking experiment.
Jenny’s tack was to explain the benefits her proposals would bring. She also served her dad the harsh truth that the company would fold without him because “everyone knows Roland Tay, but not Direct Funeral Services”. “We needed to build the brand so that ‘DFS’ and ‘Roland Tay’ were synonymous with one another,” she says.
Most importantly, she made it clear what her ideas would look like. When she wanted to convince her dad to change their wake set-up, she showed him a detailed 3-D model. When she wanted to introduce professional staff uniforms, she let him see and feel samples of the materials.
Roland’s verdict, four years on? “[Jenny’s] doing things differently, but her system works better than mine. Times have changed… I’m more than ready to let her helm the company,” he says proudly.
Hiring policies and uniforms aside, one of the biggest things Jenny tackled was the eerie atmosphere of funerals. It was an issue that hadbugged her since she was a child. “A wake should be a celebration of life and give visitors an idea of what the deceased was as a person,” she says.
Instead of the uninspired funeral set-ups of old – a huge yellow tent housing the coffin and wreaths – a basic DFS wake set-up today includes floral table centrepieces, “funeral favours” (pouches containing white towels, red thread and sweets), a coff ee machine and night-duty servers. An emcee is present at every wake to facilitate the event, and you customise the space just like you could with a wedding ceremony.
Jenny has executed a Manchester United-themed wake with the football club’s merchandise as decor, and its anthem playing. There was even an art gallery-themed funeral where the deceased’s artwork was displayed on easels around her coffin. She explains: “A Japanese funeral counterpart once told us that if a person had to choose between attending a wedding or a funeral, the latter would take precedence (because it’s the last time you can meet that person).”
“If we’re paying so much attention to the details of a wedding, why can’t we do the same for a wake?”
SHEDDING LIGHT ON DEATH
Ever the savvy marketeer, Jenny has picked unconventional and even eyebrow-raising methods to promote the industry.
Last year, she made the news when her coffin-themed pre-wedding photos, which were first published in The Sunday Times, went viral.
The tastefully shot pictures of her and Darren posing with a white marbled coffin made it all the way to Britain’s The Daily Mail’s website. The shoot was Jenny’s idea, and her way of paying tribute to their profession.
Earlier this year, she, Roland and Darren starred in a six-episode documentary series, Death Is Our Business, which aired on Channel 5. The series shadowed them at work over two months, giving viewers a glimpse into the inner workings of the funeral industry.
Some admire Jenny’s dedication to her work; others label her a publicity-monger. Either way, it doesn’t bother her as long as she draws attention to her cause: encouraging more openness when it comes to talking about death and dying.
“For the longest time, the way people approached death was simple: They ignored it because it’s ‘suay’ (Hokkien for ‘unlucky’),” says Jenny. But this shut down important conversations about end-of-life planning – will writing and estate planning, for instance.
The undertaker shares that she’s seen one too many cases of people tied up with paperwork and siblings arguing over what rites their parent would have preferred, making her case for advance planning. “It frees you up to mourn and seek proper closure during your last moments with that person,” Jenny says.
Her ultimate goal? For DFS to be an “end-of-life hub”, providing consultancy services for advance financial and funeral planning.
To further her cause, she established Direct Life Foundation in 2015, a non-profit arm of DFS that aims to initiate discussions about death through education, interactive activities and charitable efforts. It has released two books – a children’s story, Where Did Grandpa Go?, authored by Darren and available at every DFS wake for parents to read with their kids, and Last Wishes, an informative read that covers estate planning and other things you need to consider when planning for death.
The foundation also retains Roland’s altruistic spirit by making charity work a regular affair for company staff . This January, staff and volunteers cut and dyed the hair of elderly folks from voluntary welfare organisation Swami Home and cleaned their one-room flats.
REVIVING A DYING INDUSTRY
Jenny’s not done yet. As the assistant secretary at the Association of Funeral Directors Singapore, she wants the industry to become more professional and transparent through Casetrust – the accreditation arm of the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case). It’s Singapore’s defacto standard for companies that wish to demonstrate their commitment to fair trading and transparency to consumers. She explains that “if the public has a bad impression of this field, everyone within it suffers.”
According to Jenny, all a person needs to operate a funeral business in Singapore is the requisite business registration. There are no official checks into whether they have the appropriate facilities to carry out services like embalming. This creates a market of “one-man undertakers” who act as event coordinators and outsource most of the job with little regard for service standards.
It’s an unpleasant thought, but dealing with loss can make you vulnerable to unscrupulous vendors, like the one who quoted a woman $30,000 for her mother’s tombstone. “Thankfully, she came to us for a second quote, because you can buy a decent tombstone for $10,000,” says Jenny. She adds that it’s common for companies to double charge you for a service or hide certain fees until it’s time to pay up. “This is why we draft detailed funeral contracts for each case where every item and its charge is displayed,” she says.
She knows that achieving industry-level change is a mammoth task, but takes heart in small successes. “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,” says Jenny. “It’s a sign that I’ve got my foot in the door.”
Another small win? The increase in the number of people in their 20s and 30s wanting to join the trade. These days, DFS receives about two to three resumes a week from fresh graduates or millennials wanting to make a career switch – a huge jump from three years ago when they would get one applicant in three months. Jenny has observed the same thing happening within other companies.
“I’m not afraid of competition. It encourages improvement across the industry. In the last two years, I’ve seen many funeral companies off ering additional services, more transparent packages and advance-planning
options,” she adds.
Despite all the changes she’s pushing for, Jenny’s pushing herself the hardest. She’s always thinking about the next step to take. Why? “I want to give this generation and the next a better impression of this industry, so that they’ll consider it as a career,” she says. “I want to build a legacy.”