Living funerals for the terminally ill

SHANGHAI, China - William Chan was quietly carried into the funeral hall on a brown wooden couch.

Chan's funeral at the International Funeral Parlour in Hong Kong's Hung Hom in July was complete with prayers, music, mourners, friends and family.

But he is not dead - yet.

Born with malignant melanoma - an extremely rare form of skin cancer - the 30-year-old author and cancer patient advocates living funerals for the terminally ill. 

"Initially, I wanted to be carried into the hall in a coffin, but my family felt uncomfortable," Chan said when talking about his "living funeral" two months ago, which was attended by more than 100 friends and relatives.

"It was held on my 30th birthday. I was told when I was young that my days were numbered, but I surprised doctors by surviving to the age of 30," Chan said.

The living funeral had all the trappings of a traditional funeral with tears and farewells, except that the deceased was able to get up and read out chapters of his autobiography, My Will.

"The funny thing was one of my uncles - a distant relative that hadn't seen me for 20 years - had the greatest shock in his life (when I sat up during the funeral)," he shared.

"He didn't know it was a living funeral and thought I was dead. When he was invited to the funeral, my parents didn't tell him the details," said Chan, whose entire body is peppered with painful dark moles.

Most of Chan's friends got their funeral invitations through Facebook, while Chan's parents contacted relatives by phone.


'Death is part of life'

"Some people may think I am making an inauspicious joke about death. I respect their opinion because everyone knows that death is horrible. But why do people stay away from the dead, hearses and coffins?"

For Chan, death is a part of life, and arranging an ideal funeral is extremely important to him. "People do not understand what you want even if you had written it down in your last words," said Chan, adding that everybody should prepare for their funeral, at least mentally before death.

He said he started planning the living funeral half a year ago. Even though the idea is widely accepted in other developed economies, it isn't mainstream in Hong Kong.

"In fact, not a single funeral parlour agreed to let me rent the hall," Chan said. "They asked: 'Are you mad? We serve the dead, not a living person'."

Finally, the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals - a charitable organisation where Chan has been volunteering for eight years - waived the rental fee for the hall that it owns and donated HK$14,000 (S$2,220) to cover the funeral expenses.

One week after his funeral rehearsal, Chan attended his grandfather's funeral.

"He was more than 90 years old. I had hoped we could share the same funeral hall, but I was unable to arrange it" because the funeral parlour was fully booked, he said.

"If I am still alive after my living funeral, then God must want me to do something more. It is most likely for me to do something related to death, like giving lectures on death, arrange funerals, or set up a company planning for living funerals."

Apart from holding his own funeral and publishing an autobiography, Chan also organised a death-themed concert in August called Rock Raiser.

"It's Rock Raiser's third year. We sing and raise money for the Hong Kong Anti-Cancer Society," Chan said.

"We also have a bucket list programme to help those with terminal cancer to achieve their dreams. For example, I once helped an old man, whose final wish was to get an aerial view of Hong Kong. Using the money raised from the concert, I was able to rent a helicopter for him."

Chan has refused chemotherapy and medical treatment, calling all of it "useless".

More than half of Chan's skin does not have sweat glands, making him prone to heat exhaustion.

"From a different viewpoint, I can say I've got a faster metabolism, and that means pimples fade away faster," he said jokingly.

"But the pain from the moles is a feeling I've learned to live with," he added. "It feels a bit like the discomfort you get from walking on pebbles."

There are around 132,000 cases of melanoma and 2 to 3 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer each year.

But melanoma is far more deadly than other forms of skin cancer and it causes 75 per cent of deaths related to skin cancer.

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