All images by Zachary Tang.
Some quotations have been lightly edited for clarity.
It’s raining—the sort of end-of-days rain that is accompanied by crashing cymbals and flooding of Biblical proportions. It’s the perfect backdrop to discussing death with Harmony Tee, the 25-year-old funeral director of Harmony Funeral Care.
But this perception of death is exactly what Harmony wishes to change. She wants to revolutionise the industry by making funerals “a time to… remember our loved ones and celebrate a life well lived”.
She recounts a wake she organised in which lit cigarette butts took the place of joss sticks, and Heineken beer was the libation of choice at the altar table.
“The family felt that he would have wanted that,” she explains. At his sea burial, the deceased, a pilot of no religious affiliation, was laid to rest with his twin great affections: cigarettes and beer.
When the funerals are pre-planned by the deceased themselves—usually in cases in which they are suffering a terminal disease—the events can get even more riotous.
At a particular wake, “300 people turned up,” Harmony shares.
“There was a lot of food: pizza, a buffet for 100 pax … Instead of being so sad, mulling over the fact that he’s gone, [the people] were sharing positive memories of him. There was even a TV screen [with a projector] to showcase his life. He said he wanted his wake to be a celebration.”
A celebration for—and of—him was exactly what Harmony orchestrated.
Prior to joining the family business, Harmony studied accountancy at the National University of Singapore. Upon graduation, she worked as an auditor in Ernst and Young, so she is the literal embodiment of the inescapable aspects of life: taxes and death.
Ineluctable as it is, death is a taboo topic not just in Singapore but across the world—many people still see it as pantang, as Harmony puts it—so her drastic change of careers was not warmly received by some of her friends.
In fact, one of her long-time friends ceased all communications with her after learning about her decision to join the funeral industry. “The exact words [from him] were, ‘You’re making money out of the dead’. It was harsh … The way he put it, it made my job seem unethical.”
When asked why she decided to switch lines even after such backlash from her friends, and despite knowing the stigma that death carries, Harmony reveals that she was primarily motivated by two people: her father and her pastor.
“My father would always tell me stories of my grandfather: how hard he worked, how this whole coffin shop was established, and how everything would go down the drain if no one in the third generation takes over the shop,” Harmony says.
After a short pause she adds, “And at that point of time [my father] was not in the best of health, so I was thinking about what is the best for everyone.”
Her pastor’s advice came from a more spiritual and fatalistic angle: “My pastor told me things don’t happen by coincidence … I believe that the reason why I’m part of this family— there must be a greater reason behind it.”
“Ultimately, it’s a way of helping others—not just those who have departed, but the surviving family members who get closure.”
Naturally, her father was proud that she wanted to join him in his work. Her mother, on the other hand, was not supportive. It was not so much death that her mother feared. She was afraid that Harmony would not survive in such a male-dominated industry.
These worries were not unfounded. In Harmony’s first few months, she was sometimes the recipient of unsavoury comments from her workers:
你这样漂亮我的口水都要流出来了. (You are so pretty that I am salivating.)
来, 抱一下. (Come, let’s have a hug.)
In the past, new to the company and uncertain of her role not only in its corporate but also social structure, Harmony “tried to entertain” these comments “by joking”. But she has since realised that it only “encourages them to go further”, so she just ignores it now.
“I don’t think they have any ill intention,” she reasons. “They just want to find a topic to talk or something … they just want to joke … they’re just more straightforward. You choose who you work with, so if you know someone’s like that, you stay away.”
What is left unspoken: the only people you can’t choose are your family members, and in such a small, tight-knit group of people, your colleagues are as good as your family.
Besides, she adds, “In any industry, as long as it’s male-dominated, I think you will face it.”
When I speak to her colleagues, however, all of them have nothing but glowing praise for her.
This is not surprising. It’s like the Observer Effect in physics: when you scrutinise something, you will inevitably change its outcome. Or it might simply be the Boss Effect at work: when your boss is beside you, everything you say about her will inevitably be fulsome flattery.
But I do not doubt them; in the three years since she joined the business, Harmony has evidently won their trust and established a rapport with them.
In addition to her role as his boss, she serves as a mentor to 16-year-old Wei Hao, who has been at her company for a month; she encourages him to complete his N-levels and has offered to tutor him. She also proudly shows me videos of her goofing around with 72-year-old Ong Choon Nam, who has been at the company or over thirty years, and whose approval, I sense, serves as a barometer for how the other workers relate to her.
In the clip, she is heard exclaiming to him, “你很帅!” [you are so suave!] when he is combing his hair.
Death, for the workers at Harmony Funeral Care, is their job. But for most of us, it is still the abject other: the part of existence that we say is “not me” even though it is a fundamental aspect of our selves.
For most of us, we reject the idea that we will, some day, die. Harmony wants people to confront this.
“I want people to talk about it because in general people fear death,” Harmony says emphatically.
“If we change our mindset and learn to embrace—not just accept it, but embrace it, we’ll be able to live life more fully … there is no darkness without light.”
Her sentiments, though undeniably true, veer a little too close to motivational poster jargon, endlessly quoted in various permutations.
“Live each day as if it was your last,” says Steve Jobs. “Carpe diem,” Horace intoned. “Plan your own death if you want an A in this module,” commands the Nanyang Technological University.
And when something is so relentlessly repeated, your eyes sort of glaze over and the words lose all meaning—a phenomenon known as semantic satiation. Or, like a pubertal teenager, you start to entertain the counter-narrative, and question why it is even bad to fear death. After all, it’s a survival instinct ingrained in our biology that has kept our species alive.
At the same time, we must differentiate between a fear of death and a stigma of death. When Harmony says that we should “learn to embrace” death, I believe she means that it is beneficial for death to enter our everyday vocabulary and thought processes. Thinking and talking about death clarifies what we want out of life.
“Seeing how death can be so sudden—like the accidents or even miscarriages—seeing death up close has made me realise, ‘what’s the point of climbing up the corporate ladder when, one day, all of this could be so easily taken from you?’”
Death helped Harmony recognise that climbing up the corporate ladder at Ernst and Young was not how she wanted to spend her life. Similarly, talking and thinking about death might help nudge us out of whatever unhappy situations we think we are stuck in.
“Whatever you want to do—you should [do them] while you still can,” Harmony says.
This is why we must talk about death.
And it is perfectly compatible to talk about death while fearing it at the same time: we fear things like spiders and the climate crisis, but we don’t shy away from discussing them in conversation.
In other words, Harmony is not saying we should not fear death, or spiders, or climate change. She is saying we should not pretend they do not exist so it’s less painful—not just for us, but also for the people around us—when these things inevitably show up.
Recall the cigarettes-and-beer funeral and the pizza-party funeral. Conscious of their mortality, the deceased in these funerals managed to make their passing the final, joyous occasion of their lives, rather than the event that ends their lives.
Harmony is such a persuasive and powerful advocate for embracing death that I think of her as Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
Today it’s not just people who are dying. The funeral industry is as well, and this metaphorical death is just as distressing.
In fact, the situation is so dire that Harmony’s new hires often leave within three months because of objections from family, erratic hours (“You can’t plan someone’s day of death,” Harmony tells me wryly), laborious physical work, and so on. She even asks me if I know of anyone interested in the line.
So, I worry that, in the distant future, Singaporeans will no longer have a bereavement buddy (her term, not mine) who knows the exact number of steps you have to take around a makeshift bridge before your deceased loved one can cross it.
It might not be pleasant coffee shop conversation or the next PR cachet that the Singapore Tourism Board wants, but death is as much a part of our cultural heritage as is hawker culture or auntie culture. Death needs someone to keep it alive, or death, thou, indeed, shalt die.
Even though Harmony is Christian, she organises funerals of most religious denominations, with the exception of Muslim and Hindu ones. And she is intimately familiar with the intricate and idiosyncratic rites unique not only to each major religious group, but also to each sub-group; for instance, she vividly describes how, and more impressively, why, the symbol of a bridge plays such a big role in Teochew funerary rites.
How, then, does Harmony reconcile the commandments of a monotheistic religion with the demands of a necessarily multi-religious job?
“Some companies might prefer to do only Christian or Catholic [wakes], but for me it’s like—” Harmony pauses to gather her thoughts. “In the Bible, it stated that Jesus didn’t just reach out to the Jews but he went on to reach out to the Gentiles also … So when you help someone, in terms of final rites, nobody should be excluded. We are all still sharing a common humanity.”
In essence, Harmony views what she is doing as a ministry. “I’m a first-generation Christian,” Harmony explains simply.
Her pastor is supportive of her work, displaying the combination of pragmatism and religious tolerance characteristic of Singapore: “He understands that even though it’s a ministry, there are still mouths to feed, so he understands that we can’t just exclude ourselves to one religion when the majority of the population in Singapore is Buddhist.” (As of 2015, 43.2% of Singaporeans are Buddhists or Taoists while 18.8% are Christians.)
A first-generation Christian, a third-generation funeral director, a woman in a male-dominated trade. Whatever identity Harmony dons, death constantly reminds Harmony that we are just ashes in the end.
This fact is not lost on her. She has, naturally, already planned her own funeral: “I want a really simple one. I don’t think there’s a need for the frills. I don’t want to get embalmed and I want to get cremated on the same day, with a sea burial.”
Dying to drop us a note? This is our resting place: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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