Undertaker's daughter dead serious about job

PHOTO: Undertaker's daughter dead serious about job
Interview with Jenny Tay(centre), who has a degree in business and marketing from the Universtiy of New South Wales. She is also being groomed to take over the family business from her father Roland Tay(left), one of Singapore's most colourful funeral operators.

SINGAPORE - A man recently complimented Ms Jenny Tay on her good looks and told her his uncle must have been chuffed that she handled his affairs.

Nothing unusual in that, except that the man's uncle was dead and the affairs he referred to were the funeral arrangements.

Ms Tay, 27, defies expectations of what a funeral director should be. Confident and immaculately groomed, she is 1.75m tall, has legs like those of a gazelle, speaks well and comes armed with a business and marketing degree from the University of New South Wales.

She is poised to take over Direct Singapore Funeral Services from her father, Mr Roland Tay, a colourful undertaker who makes headlines regularly for arranging free funerals for murder victims, as well as the poor and destitute. The company has two outlets, employs a dozen staff and handles about 50 funerals a month.

Ms Tay has been in the trade for just six weeks. Prior to that, she spent four years in event management and advertising. Her last job was as a senior account executive in a Japanese advertising firm handling accounts such as Daikin air-conditioners and Yakult probiotic drinks.

"I had expressed interest in joining the business since I was 18 but my father told me to finish my studies and gain some work experience first," said the elder of two daughters of Mr Tay and his second wife.

The 66-year-old undertaker - who separated recently from his third wife - has two other children with his first wife.

On the day Ms Tay reported for work, the first thing she did was to head for the embalming room.

"My colleagues went, 'No, no, no, don't go in.' They were concerned and worried about me because it was a coroner's case."

She told them she was fine.

"I didn't want them to feel that I would not be able to do many things because I am female. I wanted to show I could and would be prepared to do everything."

As she was mentally prepared, she did not flinch when she saw the corpse on the embalming table.

"I just stood there for a few minutes to see how the embalmer worked. I looked at the body with respect. I was quite proud of myself actually," she said.

Self-assured and articulate, Ms Tay has never had any misgivings about the funeral business.

"My dad has talked to me about what he does since I was young. I also read about him in the papers. There's nothing to fear about this trade. I find it's a very meaningful and respectable job; we are in the business of sending a person off in a dignified manner," said Ms Tay, whose younger sister is a property agent.

Her friends were shocked when she told them she was going to be a funeral director. But her fiance, Mr Darren Cheng, 28, was not.

In fact, the former counsellor - who has a master's degree in counselling from Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology - has also joined Direct Singapore Funeral Services.

"My parents were supportive. They felt it was a noble job, especially since they've watched Departures and loved it," he said, referring to the critically acclaimed Japanese movie about a former cello player whose life changes after he joins the business of preparing bodies for cremation.

The couple, who plan to get married soon, say they are a good tag team.

"She's done account servicing and she's really good with the clients. I've done counselling, I understand and can deal with emotions like grief," said Mr Cheng, who used to run a counselling practice at Camden Medical Centre.

Since joining the company, the couple have been shadowing Mr Tay and have handled more than 30 cases.

"When you see death at such close range, you realise how important it is to cherish loved ones and do what you want to do," said Ms Tay, who is a Buddhist.

Her father, meanwhile, told The Sunday Times that he is leaving his company in good hands.

"She's a smart girl, very capable. I will still be involved and will teach them as much as I can, but they are the new generation and they will have new ideas," said Mr Tay.

His chosen successor already has plans to improve the business.

One of them is to start a training academy.

"The trade is not so appealing to the younger generation. We hope to modernise the image, and start a training academy to train professionals. We will teach all aspects of the trade - from servicing to cremations," said Ms Tay.

Asked if she has had any supernatural encounters since joining the undertaking business, she shook her head.

"No. But both Darren and I have dreamt of people whose funerals we have arranged. Not scary dreams, just peaceful ones where they wave goodbye," she said.