Death comes to all but not all will be brave enough to confront it. Even fewer will be able to make a living out of it. Funeral directors and their crew bridge the grieving process for the bereaved while honouring the dignity of the deceased. Khanthan Vithilingam, 29, a congenial and unassuming funeral director at Singapore Indian Casket who also has a day job in the oil and gas industry, sat down with us to share his story.
Khanthan became interested in the funeral business when he started helping out part-time at his uncle’s company, New Indian Casket, back in 2005. He was keen to learn about the various funeral rituals, and eventually, the whole process of arranging funerals. He recalled his first time encountering a dead body.
“I was scared as hell,” he said. “Especially at night, when you go to the mortuary. But I think over the years, we get used to it, fear does not come anymore lah.”
In 2013, Khanthan started Singapore Indian Casket by partnering with a few other companies that aided him in logistics and equipment. By 2015, he was fully independent and had established his own infrastructure, office and manpower.
“I started this business because I feel that this is a dying trade,” he explained. “It’s a trade that no one wants to go into and actually learn the business. I feel that maybe 5 or 10 years down the road, there may not be any one doing these rituals for the deceased.”
Now barely 30, Khanthan is the youngest in the industry as most of his competitors are now well into their 60s. As he may be too young to project the seriousness needed in the industry, Khanthan always introduces himself as just an ordinary worker in the company.
“They will think ‘How much would you know? Do you know the right things or do you actually know what you are doing?’ Only at the end of the funeral then they will realise that this guy can do it. It took a while for people to realise that ‘eh, the younger generation can also do the same rituals and all that,’” he said.
Khanthan (third from left) with his crew, March 2017. Photo courtesy of Khanthan Vithilingam
Having started out with Hindu funerals, the company has expanded and branched out to arranging funerals for Christians, Catholics and even Buddhists in the Indian community.
A typical day consists of advanced preparations for upcoming funerals, taking stock of supplies as well as and scheduling checks for the following day. On days where there are two or three concurrent cases, the demands can be considerably arduous. Khanthan shared that he could sometimes put in up to 15 to 18 hours of work a day. A big believer in work-life balance, he would ask his staff to stay home and spend time with their family if there isn’t any assignment.
While many may think the funeral trade is a goldmine for those who dare to venture into it, it is not exactly a goldmine.
“A common misconception is that people think those who do funerals earn a lot of money,” Khanthan said. “That [was] maybe in the early 1980s and ’90s. Now, our costs have risen, (and) everything has gone up. But for the past few years, the cost of funerals has been the same.”
The Singapore Indian Casket focuses solely on the Indian market, which comprises 7% of the national population. Their share of the market is further narrowed with seven to eight companies vying for a share of the pie.
“For Indians, the death rate per day is about two people. So per month, we are looking at 60 funerals and seven to eight companies, so we’re not doing much,” he explained matter-of-factly. “It’s not as lucrative as it was before. 30 years ago, I would say, maybe it was a trade to be in, but today, it’s just a trade.”
While he would not say that the company is unprofitable, he disclosed that he has not taken a salary since starting the company. As long as the costs are covered, he would gladly run it. His satisfaction comes from giving his clients proper closure. By shouldering the logistical load and facilitating the last rites for the departed, the team provides a dependability crucial in supporting the grieving process.
“Every closure we do, we do it to our best [ability], so that at the end of it, we know that the soul will rest in peace,” Khanthan said.
While he has gotten used to the looming companionship of death as part of his work, Khanthan revealed his disquietude with suicide; in his years of experience, he observed that the suicide rates have increased especially among young people.
“I feel that your life is given to you by god or someone who actually (intends) for you to live through your life, not to end it abruptly for a reason which can be solved,” he explained. “It can be financial issues whatsoever – all these issues can always be solved. Suicide is not a solution to any problem.”
Usually, when a person passes away, a certification of death needs to be issued. Once the death is certified by a doctor, Khanthan and his team would take over and bring the body back to the parlour to be embalmed by a certified embalmer.
The embalming process entails draining the body of blood and fluid, and then pumping it with formalin, which preserves the body for about seven to ten days. The ritual of showering the deceased’s body begins after the process of embalmment is completed. For Hindus, this can be done in the parlour or at home. If they choose the latter, family members will gather and shower the body the day after the embalmment. The funeral is usually carried out the next day.
Working in the funeral business sometimes involves dealing with sobering cases of solitary deaths with no next-of-kin; these bodies are often not discovered immediately. With physical decomposition already setting in, it may be difficult to accept that the body used to belong to a person. In such cases, the usual rituals such as showering and dressing up the body cannot be completed, and the body is immediately put in a body bag and placed in the casket.
This also applies to cases of drowning where there is usually bloating of the body. What Khanthan finds most upsetting is that there would be no proper closure for the family in most of these cases, as they are unable to see the body. Khanthan thinks that seeing the body will help the deceased’s loved ones to process the death.
“When we handle these kinds of funerals – especially those that come from nursing homes – there may not be any family members at all, so we are the ones who actually do the rituals for them. We try our very best to make sure the person has a dignified funeral, a good send-off, so that he can carry on his journey lah,” he said.
Khanthan’s role also extends to being a kind of emissary for migrant workers in the event of death. He started doing funeral services for them when he was still working in his uncle’s company around 2005 and 2006.
“What I feel sad about is that they come here to work, [but] they pass on due to workplace accidents, [or] due to suicides, and they don’t have anyone here to [be a] voice for them, to assist in repatriating the money,” he said. “So for us, we are the ones who contact the family, make sure they can reach home in the shortest possible time. Time is a challenge.”
An elaborately decorated hearse at a funeral in November 2017. Photo courtesy of Khanthan Vithilingam
Besides helping out the under-priviledged, Khanthan has also taken on high-profile cases. He has handled a temple president’s funeral and the funeral of World Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Federation (WBPF) Singapore President, Pradip Subramanian, who passed away tragically after an ill-fated celebrity muay thai match at the inaugural Asia Fighting Championship in September 2017.
“With all these cases we have handled, there’s a lot of media publicity – a lot of people come to the funeral to see how we do it, so we have to make sure that everything is in order and on time,” he said. “Because [the clients] are very particular about the timing, we need to make sure that there’s no hiccups or whatsoever lah.”
Khanthan feels validated when he was tasked to handle cases like these. He takes it as an affirmation of his company’s good work and the public’s faith in them. His pride in his work emerges through his meticulous care for detail, a conscientiousness reflective of his inherent integrity.
“My duty is to ensure that the work is well done. So even before they send [the body] back home, I check on the dressing, I check on the placement in the casket, is it well done?”
The taboo of death has eased over the years, with people having frank conversations about funeral preparations before their time has come. Societal attitudes towards death are reflective of a greater understanding and acceptance of death as a necessary part of life. Khanthan observed that people are now open to talking about mortality and pre-planning their funerals. Previously, people usually waited until their loved one has passed on to find out about funeral packages.
Khanthan also notices that funerals are slowly losing the deference they once held in the general community.
Khanthan in the middle with two of his colleagues from Singapore Indian Casket in January 2018. Photo courtesy of Khanthan Vithilingam
“Previously [when] someone in the family passed away, everybody would make the effort to be there and be around the family, they would all play a part in it,” said Khanthan. “Nowadays, people are too busy with work, [so] if the family member is not someone close, they might not even make the effort to come for the funeral. I don’t blame our society but our fast-paced environment.”
For Khanthan, dealing with death has become the norm. He understands the importance of his role which is to shoulder the crosses of grief alongside the bereaved and restoring dignity to the departed.
Written by LY Kang
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign