The lives of undertakers in Hong Kong who handle more than 100 funerals a day

Clara Chan

Undertakers work long hours and must attend to every detail to lessen the sorrow of those grieving

Clara Chan |

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A funeral director guiding Joyce Lai Chun-wing, daughter of Lai Chun-ting, Assistant Director of the Immigration Department who jumped to his death from his 10th floor flat in 2002.

Having to deal with the dead every day is not an easy job. Funeral directors bear a great deal of responsibility and stress. So what’s the appeal?

Young Post talked to two funeral directors to find out why someone would pursue a career as an undertaker.

There are around 40,000 deaths in Hong Kong every year; that’s around 110 funerals taking place in the city per day. With seven licensed funeral parlours here, the funeral industry is said to be earning enormous profits. However, this doesn’t seem to be the major reason our interviewees took up their jobs.

Miss Chu, who has worked as an undertaker for eight years, says the pay is only a minor reason why she decided to join the industry. Instead, she did so after the sudden death of her relative, which made her realise that death could be just around the corner.

She, however, has an optimistic and pragmatic outlook on death. “No matter the economic situation, funeral services will always be necessary as long as there are deaths,” said Chu.

Funeral service of Anita Mui Yim-fong at Hong Kong Funeral Home in North Point in 2004. White is the colour of mourning for the Chinese.

The work of funeral directors involves transporting the body from the mortuary or hospital to a funeral parlour, selecting a coffin and mourning hall, and booking a crematorium or buying land for burial. The whole process ends when a monument is finally erected for the deceased.

The long working hours are the greatest drawback for those who are interested in the industry. “Other than Lunar New Year, we basically have no holidays throughout the year. The trade-off of this job would be the time we are able to spend with our own family and friends. I still find it worth being able to be a part of the very last journey of those who passed away, and seeing the contented faces of the bereaved,” says Miss Chu.

Another anonymous undertaker with more than 30 years’ experience revealed that she married into the third generation of a family funeral business and therefore had no choice but to take over the business. Although she feared death in her youth, she quickly managed to conquer her fears, believing that by helping the deceased, their spirits will not harm her.

In the beginning of their career, some may be as affected as the family of the deceased. But eventually they all learn how to hide their feelings. “In most cases, the bereaved are in great pain and sorrow. As an undertaker, one must manage their emotions very well to calm the bereaved,” says Miss Chu.

“We need to be alert at all times; incidents could happen in the moment you take to wipe your tears,” said the other interviewee, who’d witnessed the sudden death of a mourner in a mourning hall.

Undertakers are usually asked whether they have become accustomed to the death of people, and the sorrow of the deceased’s family and friends. Their answer is “no”, as they have to put themselves in the bereaved’s place in every case.

“We treat every client wholeheartedly, like our own family members. We just learn to control our emotions during work,” both interviewees agreed.

For those interested in pursing a career as an undertaker, Miss Chu advises them to be prepared for a heavy workload and long working hours. Funeral directors also have a lot of responsibility because they have to carefully listen to the requests of their customers. A minor mistake like missing flower baskets could worsen the sorrow of the family. There are no second chances when it comes to funerals, explain the interviewees.

They encouraged teens to treasure life and the time spent with their loved ones. Live life in the moment as you never know when it may end, they said.

Edited by Nicole Moraleda