The only friend in death

Founder of Luve takes on funerals of elderly folks who die with no next of kin pro bono, and sees to their last rites

It is the last moment before the body is turned to ashes, but there is no sobbing or sniffling inside the Mandai Crematorium service hall.

In the casket lies the body of Mr Hong, 74, a bachelor who died with no known next of kin.

There is no one in the hall except Mr Tommy Yu, 51, funeral director and owner of Seng Xiang Services, who has taken on Mr Hong's funeral pro bono, and Mr Yu's son, 21, who is having school holidays.

Like a family member, the older Mr Yu places flowers on Mr Hong's coffin and tells him not to worry, that the funeral is taken care of, and to go in peace.

Although they were total strangers, Mr Yu took it upon himself to see to Mr Hong's last rites last Saturday.

Mr Yu, who is married with three children, has a soft spot for elderly folks who are poor and lack family support.

PROPER SEND-OFF

Others can do it cheaper but they will transport the body in a lorry or a van. I cannot accept that. Even if the dead person has no family, I cannot do it so unceremoniously. Everyone deserves a proper send-off.

MR TOMMY YU, funeral director and owner of Seng Xiang Services, on using a glass-enclosed hearse with music to transport the body to the crematorium, even if it is a pro bono funeral.

About 30 years ago, he set up Love and Unity Volunteers Establishment (Luve), a group that cares for socially isolated and needy elderly residents in the Bukit Merah area. But the pro bono work he provides goes beyond Bukit Merah.

Social workers at hospitals and hospices would inform Mr Yu about elderly people who die with no next of kin.

Upon receiving their call, he would collect and transport the body to an undertaker where the body is cleaned, dressed and put in a coffin. Clothes to dress the dead are usually provided by their next of kin.

"Even if it is pro bono funeral, I have my own standards. For the funerals that I do, the bodies must be dressed and have shoes to wear. You cannot expect a person not to wear any clothes, correct?"

For Mr Hong, Mr Yu went to a neighbourhood mall and bought a green-striped polo T-shirt, brown bermudas and black sandals.

Another standard he holds himself to is that a glass-enclosed hearse with music must be used for the journey to the crematorium.

"Others can do it cheaper but they will transport the body in a lorry or a van. I cannot accept that. Even if the dead person has no family, I cannot do it so unceremoniously. Everyone deserves a proper send-off."

Mr Yu estimates that he takes up about 20 to 30 pro bono cases a year. Each case without a wake costs about $1,300 - the money pays for transport, the casket and the services of the undertaker.

It is a challenge paying for the funerals, he said.

"If I do two or three a year, it is not a problem, I can shoulder the costs myself. There is financial difficulty doing more than 20 a year as each funeral costs money."

He says that in a year, he pays for about five to eight funerals out of his own pocket. The rest are paid using donations to Luve or money from sponsors who pledge to pay for such funerals.

Mr Yu, who did his first pro bono funeral more than 26 years ago, remains motivated to carry on.

"It doesn't matter what race or religion they are. As long as I can help one person, I will help. Even if no one knows, the dead know."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2016, with the headline 'The only friend in death'. Print Edition | Subscribe