(Un)Dead Links: Fellow’s Tea with Funeral Director Ms Angjolie Mei

On February 20, Ms Angjolie Mei came down to Tembusu to speak at a Fellow’s Tea hosted by Dr Connor Graham. The Tea is part of the Living and Dying in the Internet Age Junior Seminar module which Ms Ang has been supporting since 2017. Drawing from the growing field of Death Studies, the module (and thus the Tea) asks questions such as “How do we make sense of and respond to living and dying in an increasingly digital age?”

Perhaps there is no one better to confront such questions than Ms Ang, a funeral director who has significantly changed the industry. The changes began with her father, Mr Ang Yew Seng, who founded the Ang Yew Seng Funeral Parlour and transformed the industry’s image. Once thought to be filled with tattooed hoodlums, he made shirtsleeves and ties compulsory for employees, and now we perceive the funeral industry as being run by working professionals.

Succeeding her father, Ms Ang founded The Life Celebrant (TLC) with the intent to be yet another trailblazer. The Life Celebrant helps its clients plan for and carry out funeral and funeral-related services, from cremation to post-funeral legal guidance, but it is topped with her unique touch. Consider Showers of Love, a service whereby the bereaved may participate in dressing and cleaning their departed loved one as part of grieving and healing. Angel Star is a specialised service for parents to ceremonially and symbolically mourn children who were not carried to term.

Succeeding the Business  

Ms Ang first took over the family business after her father passed away in 2004. As the second eldest daughter, she did not feel at ease leaving her mother to manage the business alone while the latter was grieving deeply. Neither did she want her older sister to quit her job as an accountant in a successful firm. Thus, fresh out of university, Ms Ang quit her job at a logistics company to help her mother. However, something beyond feelings of obligation marked her entry and subsequent stay in the funeral industry. The first person she ever saw off was her father whom she accompanied in his final moments. As such, she takes every passing in her line of work as if it were that of her own family.

Initially, her mother was not pleased with her career change. She felt it a waste of all the money spent on Ms Ang’s university education for her to enter an unpopular—even taboo—line of work. Her hopes and concerns for Ms Ang to acquire more experience of the world eventually culminated in her demanding her daughter leave the industry in 2005.

By 2010, though, Ms Ang was back in the business. Now 30, she had gained not only knowledge of the working world, but also the maturity to understand her mother’s feelings then. She realised her mother bore no ill will, only a fear that there would be no future for Ms Ang working in the funeral industry. In a sense, her brief hiatus from the industry ascertained and enabled her long-term dedication to it. “I told my mum, ‘Thanks for kicking me out of the industry. It was the best decision you ever made.” In turn, her mother said what might be the highest praise a child can receive from their parents: “I’m not worried about you anymore,” she said. “Everytime you fall, you stand up.”

Despite her mother’s personal approval, other obstacles still stood in her way. It wasn’t just that the majority of the funeral industry were men, it was that the majority of her father’s employees had been working with him since the ‘70s. It was difficult to win their trust. Whenever Ms Ang sought new ways of doing things, they would tell her, “I’ve consumed more salt than you’ve consumed rice [a literal translation of the Chinese expression 我吃盐多过你吃米]. Don’t tell me to change anything.” Her mother was also wary of change, making it difficult for Ms Ang to truly follow in her father’s footsteps of transforming the industry.

The solution Ms Ang arrived at was simple: show, not tell. “Don’t use your mouth,” she explained. “You show them how it’s done, [that] it can be done.” As she put it, “I’ll be walking in my high heels, and I still can do my job.” As for her mother, Ms Ang eventually realised, “Instead of trying to change her, convince her, I probably have to walk six steps ahead and walk five back.” With that in mind, she started her own company where she implemented the changes she sought.

Worlds of Change

Much of the change she envisioned was influenced by her experiences abroad during a research tour. Her new world was wide and vast, stretching from the Asia Funeral Expo in Hong Kong to a Funeral Directing Certificate from Mount Royal University in Canada. She came to know of the diversity of funeral cultures across the world. “My first trip changed my mind absolutely,” she recalled. Of particular note were the Western countries, whose funeral practices were very different from Singapore’s traditional ones. For instance, at void decks in Singapore were plastic porta-potties you could not wait to get out of; at funeral homes in the United States were spacious toilets encouraging women to huddle, chitchat, and cry together. Instances like these inspired her to raise the standards of the funeral industry in Singapore.

While seeing more of the world broadened her thinking, the way her clients think of death has also changed with the passage of time. Previously, superstitious folks would have anxiously told her not to put photos of the living alongside the dead, but young children now are more than eager to create montages of their loved ones using apps.

Indeed, technology has been gradually changing the way we mourn. For example, the Remembering Lee Kuan Yew Facebook page has, at the moment of writing, 250,000 likes and follows. In Ms Ang’s own experience, a similar page was created when her friend passed away after being shot by her husband. Every year, on that friend’s birthday, people would share their memories of her. The page also allowed people to post and receive updates about the husband who shot her.

Our Private Insincerities

Yet, this is hardly an uncomplicated development. The change in how we grieve does come with uneasy implications about whether it also changes the fundamental nature of our grief. Ms Ang recalled a friend who attended his grandmother’s funeral in America and posted the pictures to Instagram. “My first thought was, ‘Wow who did the embalming?’” She laughed. “You know, the occupational hazard?” But her next question was troubling: Was it appropriate to upload such pictures onto social media in the first place?

It seemed (to me, at least) symptomatic of a larger problem we have with the internet and technology. We do things over the internet because they are convenient, not necessarily because they are appropriate. In a similar vein, Ms Ang questioned whether sending messages of support over social media constituted real support. It certainly differs in her own experiences—when her clients text her, she knows they want her support, so she goes. But that kind of one-on-one rapport might be more difficult to guarantee on social media. More commonly, we see groups of people making general statements in the general direction of other groups of people.

Sometimes the virtual responses to other people’s deaths go beyond being merely inappropriate. At one funeral she organised, someone thoughtlessly circulated a photograph of the bereaved family’s home. Accompanied by information that the only other occupants of the house were in intensive care, it practically invited burglary. Meanwhile, strangers were soliciting for cash from the public online under the guise of collecting condolence money.

Clearing the Files

On top of that, the intimate intertwining of social media with our lives increases the burden of the bereaved who have to sieve through what their loved ones leave behind. While settling paperwork, such as financial assets, has always been part of the (material) process of reorienting to life without the departed, settling people’s social media accounts after their deaths is a whole different ball game.

Ms Ang recalled a sticky situation between a woman, who had access to her husband’s Facebook page even after his death, and his siblings who did not. “You know how some people tell the entire world their entire life story?” Ms Ang said wryly. That man was like that. Often, he would air his domestic grievances in Facebook posts—posts his wife was deleting after his death. In light of the man’s sudden death, his siblings viewed such behaviour on the wife’s part with suspicion. They confronted her, and the two sides came into conflict.

Still, the same technology that has given us such problems might also provide (some of) the solutions. Facebook’s “legacy contact” function enables users to preemptively authorise another to manage their account after their death. Once the legacy contact is able to provide proof of that person’s death, such as a death certificate, they will be able to manage tribute posts or deal with spam on the deceased’s wall. Alternatively, users can opt for their account to be immediately deleted once Facebook is notified of their passing.

Source: Screen grab from Facebook

Of course, this is all at the mercy and whims of the volatile internet. Ms Ang recounted a memorial page she once created going offline along with all its curated images and text. The ease with which a page can be made on the internet is matched by the ease with which it can be unmade. 

Between empowerment and overinvolvement 

In a digital age of economic rationalisation and automation, we are increasingly empowered to manage our own post-death affairs. There already exists all-in-one online services wherein information such as one’s social security number, phone passcode, bank account details and the like can be stored for loved ones to access after the account owner passes away.

There is even the possibility we might be able to manage the grieving of those we leave behind long after we’ve passed on. In the film P.S. I Love You (2007), a widow is helped out of her grief by the letters her deceased husband had written and arranged to be delivered to her after his death. In Avengers: Endgame (2019), Tony Stark leaves in the form of a hologram a final message for his wife, Pepper, and their daughter, explaining the rationale behind his sacrifice and his hopes for the future. In the Tembusu Common Lounge (2020), Ms Angjolie Mei mused, “Imagine at my funeral, I have a hologram of me salsa dancing there.”

Source: Screen grab from the film Avengers: Endgame

The question, of course, is the same as always: should we? In particular, Ms Ang pointed out it can be difficult to draw the line between mourning and denial. She brought up the virtual reality replica a South Korean television show made of a woman’s deceased daughter. The young girl had passed away suddenly due to illness and the intentions were to give the grieving mother a chance to attain closure by giving her daughter a proper, final send-off. Thus we see the VR replica of the girl wishing, “I want my mother to stop crying.”

Source: Screen grab from Youtube Video

Ms Ang was less certain of the possibility of dealing with grief through cloning. In an episode of Black Mirror, “Be Right Back”,  the protagonist Marth essentially clones her dead boyfriend, Ash. After Ash’s sudden death, Martha uses an artificial intelligence service that generates a virtual Ash through information gathered from all his past online communication and social media data. Eventually she even transfers this virtual Ash into a synthetic android body. Despite going as far as to sleep with the android, Martha is never completely satisfied as it does not perfectly replace her dead boyfriend.

Source: Screen grab from TV Series Black Mirror

As extreme as that sounds, the idea that relationships continue even after one party dies is not entirely foreign. After all, that is a principle by which tributary “Remembering” pages operate. Even ancestral worship, found in certain folk religions, manifest and are manifested by ongoing bonds with the long-dead. But as with our relationships with the living, I think there are relationships with the dead that push us to be better versions of ourselves and those that chain us to our uglier parts.

Grief

But, really, it’s not all bad. To Ms Ang, the expression of grief on social media is still preferable to the repression of emotions characteristic of older times and generations. Deprived of the means to process and resolve their grief, people might resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like alcohol or drugs. At least on the internet, one voice amidst a choral dirge, it is still possible to find the feeling of a relationship with a greater whole in the end of one relationship, however brief and coloured by grief.

Grief is pain and ugliness. But maybe, grief has also always been a little insincere. We convince ourselves our prayers and joss sticks are for our lost beloved’s comfort in whatever afterlife we believe in, when those prayers and joss sticks are really for our comfort. When we mourn people whose lives we have not lived, we mourn the death of our relationship with them. Given this inherently social component to grief, it is unavoidable that social media and the internet would have complicated it—whether the nature of grief itself will be fundamentally altered is another question entirely.

It is difficult to speak of any definitive generalisation about grief; it is acutely individual. All that can be done is to recognise someone else’s grief as uniquely theirs. It is not relief we hope for, but the peace to eventually understand what Ms Ang already does—that “grief is just a measure of the love you have for a person.”

Header and feature image from Angjolie Mei Facebook Page

About the author

Tan Yanrong is a first-year literature major who has all the right opinions on all the wrong things.