It’s 4:30 AM in the morning, and the sound of my uncle’s shuffling footsteps indicates that he’s leaving for work. There are no fixed working hours when one’s livelihood hinges on the dead.
His day-to-day involves transferring bodies of the deceased to different locations—to and fro hospitals, homes, embalming centres, and wakes. His workday starts whenever because death waits for no man.
It’s a grim career for someone in his mid-50s. Even more so for a devout Buddhist and someone averse towards anything supernatural. My uncle’s decision to join the funeral industry, specifically working on body transfers, intrigued and concerned my family.
Yet, with a rapidly ageing population in Singapore today, dealing with death is good business. There is always demand for manpower in the funeral industry.
Armed with little education qualifications to his name, my 56-year-old uncle, Adrian Tay, is no stranger to the blue-collar avenue. The bleak nature of his occupation leaves me with one question—why do we typically see older and elderly workers in odd labourous jobs like these?
Funeral work is a broad job scope, but the part that people often forget about is this: Who are the people you immediately call to take away the deceased’s body? It’s the first step to reacquire a surface sense of normalcy in a house, hospital, or public area.
When funeral companies get called up for a job, they first send their workers down to collect the deceased’s body, typically from the mortuary or in a residential area.
They then transport the body to the embalming centre if needed before transferring it to a wake. These contracted workers are responsible for sending the body off on its final journey, carrying the coffin to where it’ll be buried or to the cremation centre.
The funeral industry operates in both permanent and freelance markets. Employees who hold full-time jobs in funeral companies usually take on multiple roles and earn a fixed salary. Meanwhile, individuals in the freelance economy operate on a ‘by-call’ basis—they’re specifically contracted for a particular role at any location.
This partly explains the vague title of employees whose main role is in the transferring of bodies. Some companies term these workers ‘funeral workers’ or ‘funeral assistants’ in general. Others are subsumed under the title of ‘pallbearers’.
But there’s another reason why their job titles are so murky: taboo.
“Most people in the past are quite pantang (superstitious), shunning you after hearing that you move (and touch) bodies. In actual fact, there are already many people in the industry [who do that],” says Jacky Tan.
Jacky started out as a freelance pallbearer in 2008. The 42-year-old, who is now a funeral director and operations manager at Serenity Casket & Funerals, recalls his early days in the industry—a time when he was driven more by desperation for survival than fear.
When faced with an actual deceased individual, the corporeal and sensorial elements of the job did take him aback in his very first encounter with a body.
“The leg of the deceased was really cold. Feeling the temperature difference… it dawned on me that this person is really dead. I did take some time to process,” Jacky recounts.
“Yet, the scarier feeling is having no income. So I quickly got used to the feeling, and it taught me to respect the deceased even more.”
The same went for my uncle, Adrian. He felt a tincture of thrill on his first day when he had to collect a body from the mortuary at the Singapore General Hospital. As a freelancer, when he receives calls from funeral companies, he would head directly to hospital mortuaries or residential areas to collect the body.
“I remember the very first time I heard a wheezing sound coming out of the body I was carrying. I was in so much shock I almost dropped the stretcher the body was on,” says Adrian. He later learned that sounds like moans and groans can be produced when built-up gas exits the decomposing body.
Five years in the industry, he has handled countless bodies in various sizes and forms—and there’s always something new to experience. From decomposing bodies to heavily stitched-up bodies to bodies in the state of thawing, the work sure was challenging. But staying in the job wasn’t difficult.
On top of desensitising himself to the macabre, Adrian had to learn the specific knacks of being a pallbearer. Cases of transferring bodies from mortuaries and house cases are generally straightforward, he says. Navigating the pathways in and out of houses (while carrying a body, mind you) is integral to ensure that the stretcher can be moved smoothly.
The toughest challenges of the job are always physical, he shares.
“I had to carry the body of a 200kg individual, which was more than what I could manage. My footing was unstable and I stumbled. My colleague wasn’t particularly strong as well, so the body dropped, landing face down,” he recalls.
“It let out a dull, humming sound. In that moment, I was shocked, embarrassed, and apologetic—all at once.”
At the same time, the pressure to perform well proved to be daunting. Seniors in their 60s and 70s were often scornful and unforgiving, eyeing younger colleagues as rivals in an industry where workers are so easily replaceable.
“Companies favour those who have knowledge of the funerals of different cultures and religions, which influence every part of the job; even how we move the bodies of the beloved. Veteran employees often share tips with one another. But as a newcomer, you’ve got to earn their trust,” shares Jacky.
Even though the repeated lifting of bodies takes a physical toll on the workers, who are mostly in their late ages, they bite the bullet.
Two years into the job, Adrian was diagnosed with muscular degeneration in his legs, which impeded his daily movements. Still, with the prospect of making a decent living, he soldiers on while maximising his rest hours.
Funeral companies understand the limitations of the industry’s demographic and assign older workers (or those with physical ailments) easier tasks and cases, such as bodies that are relatively lighter.
“At our age, we are all bound to have some sort of ailment. But if not for us, who would move the bodies?” Adrian offers.
As a former trishaw rider emerging from the SARS epidemic in 2003 and 2004, Jacky had little choice but to find another job at a time with virtually no tourists. He took on a freelance role as a pallbearer not long after.
Transferring bodies is only one part of a full-timer’s job, but for a freelancer, it is their entire rice bowl. It explains the grit and drive these freelance pallbearers have—even if it means a physically and mentally draining job.
“I’ve worked various odd jobs, and to be honest, carrying a body and a casket isn’t that difficult. Companies pay quite substantially for each case. By moving the body of the same deceased individual to different locations, I received payment for each transfer,” Jacky recalls.
Often, the workers enter the industry with mostly technical and manual skills. Adrian shares that this makes promotions difficult due to a lack of opportunities to display other skills.
“The surer method for career progression is moving on to advising at the directorial level, which is often not very interesting to us,” he shares.
Jacky is an example of how one climbs up the ladder to upper management. After years of doing odd jobs in the industry, he was offered the opportunity to join Serenity Caskets in 2016 as a funeral assistant. As his interest and belief in the funeral service grew, he eventually rose to the position of Funeral Director.
While the leap from the position of a pallbearer to a director takes more than just courage, the practice of internal rotation is common among funeral companies, which provides opportunities for employees to try out new roles based on their expertise, strengths, and interests. A pallbearer could take on leadership roles before moving on to executive positions.
My uncle Adrian, on the other hand, began this line of work as a freelancer after realising that his job in logistics wasn’t earning him much. With only a primary school education, he worked in the manufacturing sector, often taking on manual labour jobs. When the offer for an interesting job that paid more came, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I fleeted across odd jobs that got me around $2,000 per month. But companies pay freelancers by case—and with every shift to a new location, I’m paid $30 to $50, depending on their rates,” Adrian says.
“With multiple cases to handle every day, I was earning $4,000 to $5,000 per month, which was great— even if it meant taking calls at 3 AM in the morning,” he added.
As the number of deaths grows concurrently with the rapidly ageing population in Singapore, the demand for workers to carry bodies follows suit.
Younger generations chase white-collar occupations, so these jobs are taken up by the older population. This generally keeps competition within the industry low and the pay high, beckoning older workers in their 50s to 70s.
Hence, when Joshua Ng, a 23-year-old pallbearer at Passion Bereavement Services, decided to try out a part-time job as a funeral worker four years ago, he knew he would be in the company of experienced seniors.
“I was waiting to enter university, and this job piqued my interest. Rather than going for the usual part-time jobs in the retail and F&B industry, it would be meaningful to be part of the deceased’s final journey,” says Joshua.
While he initially solely accompanied his colleagues during body transfers, he eventually stepped out of his comfort zone and took on the role of pallbearing.
“The job scope of pallbearers also includes preparing the intricate details in funeral processions and comforting families. This flexibility also gives the potential for every employee to showcase their perception and talent for roles beyond body transfers,” Joshua offers.
The job pays well, but it comes at the price of having to reckon with one’s place in the universe. The fact that life is fleeting is a daily reality, and pallbearers come to terms with mortality in various ways. It’s a requirement to keep an open mind and heart in this line of work.
“I’ve hustled all my life to eke out a living, chasing the rising costs of living,” Jacky remarks. “This job showed me the fragility of life and how spending time with my loved ones is important.”
For Joshua, his transformation was spiritual—he converted from Buddhism to Christianity. He credits his conversion to Deborah Kang, the founder of Passion Bereavement Services.
“Ms Kang has always taken good care of us, praying for us and praying together when we faced difficulties. And as I observed and experienced how these prayers and funeral rituals offer a source of strength and comfort for both the loved ones of the deceased—and us employees—the more Christianity resonated with me,” Joshua explains.
As a devout Buddhist, my uncle Adrian was able to navigate the superstitions that came with a job in the funeral industry. While his family was afraid that his belief might clash with the different supernatural energies the job brings, urging him to pray more often, it was this job that rooted him deeper in his beliefs.
“I used to be extremely afraid of ghosts and wouldn’t even return home if my parents weren’t home. This job truly changed me,” he says, laughing.
“Watching family members cry over their loved ones daily, I realised that death is inevitable. But as the Buddhist saying goes, as long as we keep kind thoughts, we don’t have to be afraid of anything. So I guess funeral work has made me more grounded,” Adrian reflects.
The promise of job satisfaction in an industry that can benefit from a younger workforce could prove to be enticing—even if it involves something as primordial as moving corpses from one place to another.
Furthermore, according to Adrian, a growing number of individuals in their 20s have shown interest in jobs in the funeral sector, from funeral assistants to pallbearers. While the majority of pallbearers are simply looking out for their next paycheck, they too strive to achieve professional fulfilment in their own way.
“As trite as it sounds, at the end of the day, a job is just a means of survival. No matter how people see you, as long as you find meaning in your work and your conscience is clear, you deserve respect,” he says stoically.
It sounds cliché and banal, something I’d shrug off every time I hear it. Yet, there is a dignified air in their stories—these pallbearers have genuine pride in what they do. It doesn’t take years of specialised education to learn how to shuttle around dead bodies. But it’s a noble, necessary job nonetheless.
Bearing the physical, emotional, and mental weight of the dead is trying. But when it is, in a way, honouring the lives once lived, the weight becomes easier to carry.
The post The Weight of the Departed: Finding Meaning In Transporting Dead Bodies appeared first on RICE.2023-09-22T05:56:14Z dg43tfdfdgfd