One of Singapore's largest funeral companies has pumped $1 million into a foundation aimed at raising the industry's profile.
Ang Chin Moh Casket, which has been operating for 100 years, on Tuesday announced that it has set up the ACM Foundation in an effort to remove the stigma of death among the public, promote innovations and philanthropy and provide training for the sector.
Over the next five years, it aims to partner educational institutes to set up a bereavement academy offering degree courses in death care.
Places such as Taiwan and the United States offer degrees such as a Bachelor of Mortuary Science, but these are not available in Singapore.
Ang Chin Moh Casket director Ang Ziqian, 32, who has set up the foundation, said the lack of training options means some essential funeral services here, such as embalming, have to be carried out by foreigners trained overseas.
The foundation also hopes to run training courses to accredit industry practitioners with the aim of raising standards by weeding out fly-by-night operators or providers of low-quality services.
Mr Ang said there is currently no licensing scheme for operators.
Mr Freddie Choo, managing director of Trinity Casket, agreed that accreditation will help.
"Currently, there is hardly any control over who can provide funeral services. One can operate a 'funeral service' with just a mobile phone, without office, vehicles or employees by outsourcing it and retaining a commission."
Mr Ang said there are about 60 undertakers in Singapore, employing about 400 full-time staff, while about 400 more are one- man operators and part-timers.
Training and professional accreditation are important because the sector is heading for a manpower shortage, said Mr Ang.
"Demand for death care will rise due to our ageing population but there are hardly any young workers in this industry," he added.
"With the high turnover and retirement rate, there will be a severe manpower shortage in five years which will result in a longer wait for funeral services for all of us."
The industry is being hit hard by staff shortages and land scarcity issues in other parts of the region.
Some bereaved families in Hong Kong have to put their deceased in cold storage for three weeks before cremation while the wait for a niche in a columbarium can stretch up to three years.
The foundation hopes to rally industry players and religious organisations to step up philanthropic efforts to help the needy.
The number of elderly people living alone is likely to increase from some 35,000 now to 83,000 by 2030.
Ang Chin Moh has been providing about 70 to 100 free burials a year for the destitute who have no family support and hopes to work with others to continue its philanthropic work.
For now, the foundation is teaming up with Lien Foundation to change attitudes about death by organising international competitions in which people are invited to submit designs for caskets, urns or funeral parlours.
"We want to give death a modern twist and makeover, reducing the fear factor," said Lien's chief executive Lee Poh Wah.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.