City Weekend

How a fascination with death inspired a Hong Kong woman into a career switch providing affordable funerals

Thereza Lee is one of the founders of Peaceful Home, which seeks to innovate and give low-income families a dignified way to bid their final farewells to loved ones

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 March, 2018, 6:49pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 March, 2018, 9:22pm

In 2013, Thereza Lee Yu-wai made an unusual career change that shocked her family and friends. She was living a good life in Hong Kong and had a high-paying job as a financial officer for a wealth management company.

But a fascination with death since she was 12 drove her to make a switch in work environment – from swanky offices to a mortuary. Lee, 35, has been a licensed funeral director for over a year.

“When my grandfather passed away, our family held a funeral for him. It was the first time I had to deal with death. The service left me grieving for our loss but I was also fascinated by the tradition, culture and ritual,” Lee recalls.

Why planning for life after death is important to the elderly in Hong Kong

“My parents were not supportive when I first went to them about making the career change. They wanted me to stay in the financial sector, but along the way, they saw how passionate I was. Now, they are proud of me and would tell people what I do for a living.”

Lee started off helping out at a funeral home before getting her licence.

“To me, it’s better late than never. It’s all about seizing an opportunity so when a friend told me about this opening at a funeral home, I thought to myself, I must start somewhere. So I quit my job and the rest is history.”

Eventually, she went on to establish her own company, Peaceful Home, with two others who shared the same vision.

“The cost of death is expensive, and the city’s funeral industry has a vested interest. Throughout my time as a trainee, I saw how funeral homes tried to squeeze every dime out of their clients, stretching out the process of the funeral service for as long as possible.”

I saw how funeral homes tried to squeeze every dime out of their clients
Thereza Lee, Peaceful Home

Lee and her two co-founders of Peaceful Home introduced their innovative business concepts to alleviate the financial burden for low-income families.

“You would be surprised how tight the financial situation is for some families; they simply can’t spare another dollar to pay for such services. It’s especially tough for those living in poverty but are not qualified for subsidies under the Comprehensive Social Security Allowance scheme because they make just a little over the limit.”

Lee says her company offers lower costs on average for funeral services, ranging from HK$14,500 (US$1,850) to HK$40,000.

“Around 30 per cent of our profits are given back to our clients. We hope that people from all walks of life will support the idea of ‘good people doing good business deeds’, so that those in need can obtain sustainable help.”

We are actually doing a good deed; we help grieving families through a rough patch
Thereza Lee

Through the years, Lee says she has seen a big shift in attitudes towards how people deal with death and view the funeral tradition.

“There is this traditional Chinese thinking that people in this business bring about bad luck because we work with the dead. In the past, we weren’t even allowed to go to weddings. But people are more open nowadays.

“We are actually doing a good deed; we help grieving families through a rough patch and lighten the grief for them by helping them provide a dignified final farewell for their loved ones.”

From picking up death certificates to arranging venues as well as selecting the right kind of caskets, her funeral home is becoming more flexible in the services they offer to keep pace with the changing times.

“Most local people prefer to hold traditional Chinese Taoist funeral services accompanied by all the rituals and symbolism. But nowadays, an increasing number of clients just want a simple gathering with families and friends.”