More Than A Job - Funeral director Deborah Andres: The final journey

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CEO of Ang Chin Moh Funeral Directors Deborah Andres, 57. (PHOTO: Nurul Amirah / Yahoo News Singapore)
CEO of Ang Chin Moh Funeral Directors Deborah Andres, 57. (PHOTO: Nurul Amirah / Yahoo News Singapore)

More Than a Job

Whatever your chosen craft, vocation or profession, we all have work to do. In this occasional series, Yahoo Singapore talks to individuals who have chosen unique and unconventional careers. For some, it’s about passion. Others have a sense of duty. But for all of them, it’s more than a job.

From being an aspiring policeman to a years-long stint in the army reserves, to working in advertising and accounting, 57-year-old Deborah Andres travelled a long road before she first entered the funeral services sector in Milwaukee in 2001 – and it was not even an intentional move.

The Canadian, who was born in Cuba and speaks English, French and Spanish, told Yahoo News Singapore that she initially thought she was interviewing for a regular job as her CV had been sent out by her then-partner to numerous companies.

“Nobody told me it was the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) until I pulled up in a snowstorm and I saw the sign and thought ‘I must be reading this wrong’,” Andres recalled.

The former instructor in an infantry unit added, “It was kind of ironic, because like everybody else, I thought a funeral was something you go to. You just go to a funeral, you pay your respects and I never really gave a second thought about what goes on behind the scenes.”

Video by Nurul Amirah

Eleven years later, also by chance, Andres met Ang Ziqian at the Asian Funeral Expo in Hong Kong.

She struck up a friendship with Ang, the scion of the family behind Ang Chin Moh Funeral Directors, which was founded in 1912 and is one of Singapore’s oldest funeral services providers. By then, Andres had gone from the accounting department to business development and then became the NFDA’s expo manager.

In 2014 they met at another conference in Ireland, where Ang asked Andres to join his company.

“I thought he was very well-prepared, that he had vision; vision not just for his company, but for his country. He’s a very proud Singaporean,” said Andres. “He loves his profession and wants it to be realised as a profession here.

“So when he started talking to me, I was like: ‘Really? Singapore, I’m not sure’. (But) the more he talked, the more I listened, and thought: Why not? I’ll try anything once.”

Today, Andres is the chief executive of Ang Chin Moh Group, three years after starting out as its chief operating officer. And as the only Caucasian heading up a funeral service provider here, her appearance often surprises clients who come knocking at their Geylang Bahru office.

She said wryly, “Our consultation room’s on the second floor, and when they come up the stairs they’ll see me, and they kind of stop in their tracks. And when the consultant sits with them, they’ll say, ‘This ang moh is here, why?’”

Beyond her many years of experience in the industry, the job is also about her personal qualities. “Debbie is a people person – her warmth and compassion come through naturally and these qualities are crucial as we serve bereaved families,” said Ang who, at the age of 36, is now the company’s deputy chairman.

Andres told Yahoo News Singapore that her experience with the NFDA during the September 11 terror attacks helped cement her desire to carve out a career in funeral services. The NFDA coordinated the search by various funeral directors, both from the US and abroad, and their respective associations for the remains of the 2,996 people from various countries who perished in the attacks.

“Once all the (paramedics), all the policemen, all the firemen do what they have to do, it’s the funeral directors that dig through that rubble… bring out the pieces of people’s loved ones, identify them and then ceremoniously hand them over to the family members, with dignity. And there are also the ones who help the survivors with grief, and support,” said Andres.

It was “all hands on deck”, said Andres, who was still new at the NFDA. “We were on live feed for 188 days, and it was really an eye-opener, and it really gave me a profound respect and admiration for funeral service.”

The living and the dead

Deborah Andres (middle) and Ang Chin Moh staff members Kwek Yui Wei (left) and Lee Qin Mei (right). (PHOTO: Nurul Amirah / Yahoo News Singapore)
Deborah Andres (middle) and Ang Chin Moh staff members Kwek Yui Wei (left) and Lee Qin Mei (right). (PHOTO: Nurul Amirah / Yahoo News Singapore)

While she largely worked behind the scenes at the NFDA, Andres now often deals with bereaved families. She leads a team of 47 staff members, aged 19 to 62. She has worked to train and professionalise the staff, emphasising interpersonal skills and urging them to “carry themselves with pride, because it is a profession and they shouldn’t be ashamed of what they’re doing”.

Ang Chin Moh handles 30 to 40 funerals a month, in a business that often has unpredictable hours and unusual needs. Andres recalled the case of a man who came to Ang Chin Moh a week before his wife passed on from illness.

“He had purchased a plain white cardboard casket. When his wife died, they delivered it to the funeral home. He brought markers and crayons and beads, and he invited his guests and family to write (on) and decorate the casket.

“He also had memory boards of every place they had travelled to together. They didn’t have children, so we gave him a teddy bear. He put that teddy bear in her casket to keep her company on her final journey.”

Having travelled to countries in the region such as China, Japan and South Korea, and dealt with funeral homes in Chinatown in the US, Andres was already familiar with Asian funeral practices when she got here.

“I really appreciate the fact that… in Singapore… the funerals are still carried out with that tradition and practice for (several) days,” said Andres, adding that in the US, the process is more like “two hours, you’re done and that’s it, let’s go”.

Another difference Andres has noticed with her Singapore clients is that families here pay up for funeral expenses promptly, sometimes on the very afternoon after the funeral. By contrast, “in the West, there are collection agencies that assist funeral homes to collect ‘bad debts’ such as funeral expenses that have not been paid in full,” said Andres.

Bringing death into the open

One thing that does bother Andres is the zoning regulations in Singapore that keep the majority of funeral homes away from residential areas, and sited in the “back streets”, as she puts it.

“Where I come from, funeral homes are in the mainstream. If you go to New York, Manhattan, you can see a funeral home anywhere. Why not have a funeral home on Orchard? It can be in the mainstream, instead of tucked away in the back. It’s kind of almost like, the rubbish goes to the back. Very brutal.”

She added, “(Death) is just part of the circle of life and we should celebrate those lives, especially here in Singapore where most of your deaths are (due to) old age. They’re in their 90s, late 80s. That’s a long life that we should celebrate… with dignity.”

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