The business of death becomes her

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 October, 2011, 12:00am

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The funeral business is not for the faint-hearted, and for a young Hong Kong girl fresh out of a Canadian university with a degree in economics, it might seem an unlikely pursuit.

But that was the course Leslie Lok Man-yee set out on a decade ago when she joined her parents at Kung Sau Funeral Service, Hong Kong's oldest undertaking firm. Lok is the eldest of four children - all daughters - and the responsibility of taking over the family business will fall to her. Her sisters aren't involved in the business. After learning the trade from her parents, Lok will assume the helm when her father retires.

Founded nearly a century ago, Kung Sau provides one-stop mortuary services, including sales of coffins, arrangement of funerals, transport of bodies and embalming services. Unlike some other funeral-service providers, Kung Sau has shunned expanding into the mainland, preferring to remain a boutique focused on Hong Kong. The company employs 10 funeral consultants and eight make-up artists.

Lok, who will be the first female to head the family business, shared her vision for managing the firm's future and what it's like to be a woman in a predominantly male profession.

Do you think brand building is important in your profession?

It is important - not in a sense to attract more clients, but to alter people's negative image about our business. People look down on us. Forty years ago, we would get complaints if we put advertisements in newspapers. Nowadays, I work with non-profit organisations, hospitals and universities, and give talks to students, social workers and the public about death and funeral rituals, so they have a better understanding of our profession.

Do you want to introduce any new concepts to your business?

A few years back, we brought in the city's first western-style hearse, and it drew a pretty good response. We were also one of the earliest to introduce paper coffins to the city - although that was not exactly popular among customers. I understand there are new techniques that store the deceased's ashes in a diamond ring, or in a biodegradable box for burial under a tree, but not all these techniques suit Hong Kong's environment, consumer budgets and local burial regulations. Right now I only wish to excel in terms of our service quality [such as providing a photo book or autobiography of the deceased], or introducing new services such as live funeral broadcasts on the internet.

As a female, have you faced any difficulty in this industry?

I am lucky that I never had any unpleasant experience, but I heard just 30 years ago that undertaking was still largely men's business, with people preferring that women did not treat the dead, recite prayers or even touch the coffins because of their menstrual cycle [which is considered unclean]. However, more women are joining the business nowadays, especially as funeral organisers, because people find it easier to confide their needs to a woman in times of grief.

What have you sacrificed with this relatively unpopular profession?

An old schoolmate contacted me a while ago on the death of her husband. It was the first time since we graduated. She later explained she felt she shouldn't call me unless there was the need for it. I never thought this profession would have had such a side effect. There is also this thing about my customers: no matter how grateful they are, they always say, 'Let's hope we don't meet again'.

What are the challenges of your work? And where is the satisfaction?

You get to see life from many different perspectives. You learn how to talk to someone in grief, how to help relatives - each with their own concerns and interests - come to terms and make compromises. You do feel happy that you helped them overcome a difficult time, and satisfied when everything finishes smoothly.

Is it a problem to recruit staff?

After the Japanese blockbuster Departures, we received several applications from [university] degree and even master-degree holders. However, we don't normally recruit walk-in applicants. We prefer recommendations, and I must say that movie beautified the work of a mortician.

As a one-stop service, how do you ensure quality from contractors?

We trained our own embalmers. Although [Hong Kong] laws do not require embalmers to obtain a license, we send them to the mainland for training to boost their qualifications. As for actors hired for the [Taoist] funeral rituals, there were occasional complaints about them smoking or using mobile phones before or during the performance. We talked to them about it, and there were improvements. All in all, we maintain long-term partnerships [with contractors] to ensure quality.

Have you considered expanding your business to the mainland?

There were opportunities, but I think undertaking is a localised business. In a small place like Hong Kong, there are dozens of religions and practices. In China, it is even more so, not to mention there is a different set of regulations in every province.

What about operating columbaria or cemeteries in Hong Kong?

It is hugely lucrative. But selling niches and tombs is a long-term business, you can't just close it down. In Hong Kong, even if you could find a proper site and manage to change the land use, in 50 years your successors would have to pay a land premium for the site. It is not a business that one can easily get into.