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No fear in making a living out of death trade

Mr Teo demonstrating how he uses an airbrush gun to apply liquid foundation on a face. His job involves mainly washing, embalming and dressing bodies before applying make-up.
Mr Teo demonstrating how he uses an airbrush gun to apply liquid foundation on a face. His job involves mainly washing, embalming and dressing bodies before applying make-up.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Embalmer spurned pilot dream to enter industry that fascinated him since childhood

Mr Shane Teo is only 28 years old but he has already embalmed some 280 bodies, including that of his grandmother.

Mr Teo, an embalming apprentice with one of the largest funeral companies in Singapore, Ang Chin Moh, had always been close to his grandmother. When she died last year, he took it upon himself to do her embalmment.

Though stricken with grief, he went through the embalming steps like clockwork. His father and aunt handed him the maroon cheongsam blouse to dress his grandmother in. She had been looking forward to wearing it for Chinese New Year but did not make it.

"I put my emotions on hold and did the best I could to make her look good. It was only when I closed the coffin lid that I realised it was the end for her and I broke down," said Mr Teo.

That episode, however, was pivotal in helping Mr Teo's father accept what his son does for a living.

In the past, his father used to persuade him to consider other career options as he was aware of the stigma his son might face and was also afraid that he might contract diseases from the dead bodies.

SERVICE TO THE LIVING

It's worth it because the work is very fulfilling. We take care of the dead but the service is for the living. When the body is presented well for viewing, it helps the grieving family with closure.

MR SHANE TEO, who has embalmed about 280 bodies, including his grandmother's.

Subsequently, his father was no longer hesitant about his son's career choice and supported him wholeheartedly, even sending him articles on the latest trends in the industry for him to read.

There are fewer than 20 embalmers in Singapore, according to the Association of Funeral Directors. Most are Filipinos and only about six are Singaporeans. Mr Teo is the second-youngest among the locals.

The youngest, who is being trained on the job now, is Ms Nicole Chong, 22, from Serenity Casket. She started doing embalming in the family business about 11/2 years ago.

Mr Teo's father is a pilot and, at one time, it seemed likely the son would follow in his footsteps. Mr Teo studied aerospace avionics in polytechnic, though he had the grades to go to junior college.

However, the airline industry was in the doldrums when he graduated and pilots were being retrenched.

So Mr Teo worked in banking, shipping and recruitment companies before receiving a call one day from a recruiter who asked him if he wanted a job as a human resource executive in a funeral company. The recruiter was shocked when Mr Teo said "yes", as many had rejected the position because of the stigma attached to the death industry.

Mr Teo knew it was his chance to get a foot in the door in an industry that had fascinated him since his childhood days.

Back then, he would go online to read about how the Egyptians mummified their dead. His mother had no qualms watching TV documentaries on autopsies with him. In chemistry class, he could be found doodling things such as mortuary tables and dead bodies in his books.

"I was intrigued by death and grieving even at a young age. I wanted to find out what it is that people find frightening about it and how we can stop that fear," said Mr Teo.

So he turned up for the interview but blurted out halfway through that what he really wanted to do was to be an embalmer.

The marketing director did not know whether to take this young man seriously and told him they needed to fill the human resources position first. After about a year, the company recognised his enthusiasm and allowed him to shadow its two senior embalmers for nine months. Thereafter, the company sent him to Scotland for three months to pick up the latest techniques in facial reconstruction.

His job involves mainly washing, embalming and dressing bodies, before doing the make-up. After the body is washed, an incision is made at the neck to inject embalming fluids into the arteries while blood is drained out via the veins. The embalming chemicals are also pumped into the organs via an incision done in the stomach.

"The biggest misconception people have about embalming is that organs are taken out and thrown into a black plastic bag and the body is filled with newspapers. That is far from the truth," he said.

As he does his work on the bodies in the embalming room at Ang Chin Moh Care Centre in Geylang Bahru industrial estate, Buddhist sutras or Christian hymns can be heard playing in the background. Once, a family requested that Disney tunes be played for their dead child.

On an average day, Mr Teo embalms about three to five bodies. He works regular hours of 8am to 5pm, though he rotates the late shift with his colleagues. Being woken up in the middle of the night to tend to a case is no issue as he needs only four hours of sleep.

When the long hours or emotional strain take a toll on him, he "decompresses" either by doing something relaxing - watching TV or reading - or something intense to drain off his energy, such as wakeboarding.

"It's worth it because the work is very fulfilling. We take care of the dead but the service is for the living. When the body is presented well for viewing, it helps the grieving family with closure," said Mr Teo.

He has just got out of a relationship but he insisted the break-up was not because of his job.

Whenever he dated in the past, he would tell the girl on the first date that he was an aspiring mortician. Many second dates did not materialise as a result.

Despite being so close to death on a daily basis, questions of the afterlife do not preoccupy him. He is an agnostic. "Knowing how fragile and precious life is, I take every day as it comes, instead of wondering what happens after we die. I just try to be present in this life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2017, with the headline 'No fear in making a living out of death trade'. Print Edition | Subscribe