Before I Was Boss: She's the 'accidental' funeral director

Before I Was Boss: She's the 'accidental' funeral director
PHOTO: Courtesy of Alecia Neo

When you think of running your own business, what comes to mind? A restaurant? A startup for a cool product? Maybe something in tech?

What about… a funeral parlour?

For Ang Jolie Mei, a person's last order of business is exactly her line of business.

As a funeral director, she takes care of people who have passed, from the moment she receives a call from a client who has recently lost a family member.

But before the 36-year-old was boss of her own funeral business, she was working in the financial sector.

So how did she end up in such a different career? Let's start at the beginning.

THE JOURNEY

After graduating from NUS in 2002 with a Bachelors in Arts and Social Science, majoring in Economics and Psychology, Ang got her first job at a logistics company as a management trainee.

She was there for six months, working at the back of the house in the documentation department before moving to customer service and eventually, marketing.

Then, everything turned upside down when her father Ang Yew Seng, a well-known funeral director, passed away. 

Because Ang's older sister was only one year of experience away from becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and her other two siblings were still too young, she decided she was the most suitable to help with the family business.

So she quit her job immediately and went to help her mom in the funeral industry.

However, after a year in the industry, her mother chased her out of the business.

She felt that Ang was too young and needed more experience elsewhere.

As someone who had been married to a funeral director for years, Ang's mother saw the struggles and challenges that might be be thrown in her daughter's path if she were to continue in the funeral business.

Thus, reluctantly, Ang left the family business and headed to an independent financial advisory firm.

And she did well there; Ang ended up being among the top six advisors in the company and was a part of the Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT), an independent trade association of the world's leading life insurance and financial services professionals, for three years.

But life had something else in store for her - death.

Or rather, the business of it.

In 2008, Ang went to a funeral expo and exhibition in Hong Kong, despite her mother's objections to her interest in the funeral industry:

"What are you going for? You're not going to join this industry!" her mother said, bewildered by her decision.

"No, Ma, I'm just going to see about the industry," Ang replied, insistent on seeing what the conference has to offer.

And see she did. The conference was where the world had opened up for her.

"It was sort of an eye-opener. You get to see what the rest of the countries are doing. You can't just watch what Singapore is doing, you really have to broaden your horizon," she said.

Ang started to see how Americans were taking care of funerals, how the Philippines were handling their deceased, and how much more advanced Singapore's close-by neighbour Malaysia was in their approaches to funerals.

"So why aren't we moving forward?" Ang wondered. "There's so many things we have to improve in Singapore."

And with that new insight in mind, she returned from the conference with fresh eyes, ready to change things up.

But change wasn't what other people wanted.

The team that had long been following Ang's father was reluctant to change they way they had been doing things for years.

"I was 24 at the time, and when you're 24 you think you can conquer the world, you think your ideas are the best and you don't really respect what the old hands say. They would tell me, 'You know, I have eaten more salt than you have eaten rice,' and that's when I realised I haven't earned their trust yet, and it was important to do that."

So instead of immediately returning to her family's business, Ang decided to start her own funeral consultancy with some veteran funeral directors from various countries, learning from them and for herself as she went along.

This lasted for a few years until Ang felt like she was ready to pursue a different direction.

She had always wanted to have her own funeral company in Singapore, so she sold back her shares and went on to get her certification in funeral directing as well as acquired a certification as a funeral celebrant, making Ang the island's first and currently only certified 'life celebrant'.

Then, in 2010, the 'accidental funeral director' started her own company and thus The Life Celebrant (TLC) was born.

A 'live' demonstration of one of the many client-conscious services TLC has to offer, Showers of Love.
Photo: AsiaOne

Hurdles and Challenges

Of course, Ang's journey was not without trials and tribulations.

Because no one had expected her to follow in her father's footsteps, Ang had little preparation in becoming part of the funeral industry.

"Usually for funeral directors, the business is passed on from generation to generation and people in the industry usually learn when their family members are still around to teach them," she said. 

"But for my case, I'm an 'accidental' funeral director because my father is not around anymore, and I had to learn from scratch. Unlike other people in the industry, I don't have anyone to teach me. I have my mom to help me, but in the beginning, there were certain aspects that she didn't understand, like operations."

In addition, there's always been feelings of taboo around death. When Ang's mother got married to her dad, she felt rejected by her friends.

"People had the perception that she was touched by death, or that there was a scent of dead people around her," Ang said.

This is part of the reason why her mom did not want her to join the industry. She was worried that the life celebrant would lose her friends, social life, etc.

Furthermore, it didn't help that she was a woman.

As someone who was younger and female, she clearly didn't look the part of what people think a funeral director should look like.

Ang described the experience of being a woman in the funeral industry as difficult:

"In the beginning, you're surrounded by people who are all older, and they're all wearing singlets with bermuda shorts, body donned with tattoos, wearing slippers with a cigarette in their mouth," she told me.

Although they were very nice people, the image they gave off and the way they treated the deceased - "like a sack of potatoes" - didn't sit well with her.

What's more, because she wasn't a man, it was tougher to gain people's respect.

Ang recalls instances where members of a client's family would be rude to her and her mother, until it was revealed that she was Ang Yew Seng's daughter.

Because her father had left a good name and people respect the legacy he left behind, telling people that she was his daughter helped in giving her more credibility, and has gotten her out of some sticky situations.

To this day, Ang still soars on her father's reputation and is proud to be his daughter.

THE PRESENT

Currently, whenever people visit TLC Sanctuary for the first time, they are often surprised to find that there is no signboard. The whole street has signs for their businesses except for Ang's.

"You just have to come to the one without signage," she said.

For 'The Life Celebrant,' no sign is a sign. Photo: AsiaOne

"For people who come here, they know that they have to be here. So there's no sort of shopping. We're not here to sell funeral caskets. You see along the street, there are showrooms. But for us here, it's really about the family and their needs. It's very service-oriented."

TLC was designed with the customer in mind, and every one of their services were created based on families' feedback.

This is why when you walk into the business, beyond those dark glass doors is a peaceful atmosphere.

Calming music is played in the background as clients enter a lounge area. The furniture is bright and neat, and there are even snacks for families to much on.

Because often times family members are in the hospital for so long, they don't have time to eat. So by the time they make it to TLC Sanctuary, they're really hungry.

Hot and cold drinks, cup noodles, and all sorts of tidbits are available for clients to munch on. Photo: AsiaOne

"We want people to feel safe. Funerals here are so fast. The minute someone passes away, boom, a few hours later the body is back in the casket at the funeral wake. But what's the rush? There's no emergency anymore, no urgency anymore, so why don't we slow down the pace and let family have some intimate time with their loved one."

In fact, Ang's services are so client-considerate that she has a vehicle to ferry family members directly from the hospital or their home, because she knows how difficult it is to drive while crying and grieving.

From her soon-to-be-launched 'Showers of Love,' which allow family members to perform final acts of service to the deceased while spending intimate time with them, to training her staff to spot and offer tissues to crying funeral attendees, every aspect of the funeral process is well thought out.

"What keeps me going is when I know that I've really served the family- when the family comes to me and says things like, 'Oh, thank you for making it so easy for all of us' or just gives me a simple thanks or even a hug. It's the kind of satisfaction you can't get from any other job."

For Ang, her passion for the work she does comes from the philosophy that "a funeral is not just a day in a lifetime, but a lifetime in a day." 

The funerals she directs focuses on commemorating a person's life instead of only mourning their loss, hence the name, 'The Life Celebrant.'

She tailors every funeral to the deceased person's and their family members' preferences, from capturing the person's personality and achievements to following their specific religious or cultural traditions.

Not all funerals have to be grim, and Ang hopes that she can help to change more people's perception of death through her work.

"I believe that death is the master of my life. I've actually learned a lot about how I live life through death," she said.

And if you're wondering what it is that death has taught her, Ang's written it all down in a book, entitled "Dying to Meet You," which she's recently released.

"I hope that with this book, we can talk more about death. Not fear it, but actually talk about this topic."

Especially since suicide is on the rise in Singapore, the life celebrant hopes to reach out to people who need help. She has included stories on suicide funerals and what suicide means to her in the book.

"If we could help them contemplate and think about life in a different way, a more deserving way, I think that would help a lot of people." 

-Ang, on the necessity of talking about life and death

But most importantly, she wants everyone to think more about the end, so that they can live in the present to the fullest. 

"If you have the end in mind," she said, "maybe it will help you live better now, right?"

Photo: Epigram Books

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