Death doesn’t have a timing: Life as a 26-year-old funeral director
Planning a funeral is like planning a wedding – but on steroids.
It was midnight, and I was standing in a hospital and about to meet 26-year-old Harmony Tee when that thought crossed my mind.
An hour ago, she had just called to tell me she would be meeting a new client, and even though I lived nearby, she was already there waiting for me when I arrived.
“In this line, everything is about speed,” Harmony told me as she briskly walked me into the holding room where the deceased and the family members were.
70% PROFESSIONAL, 30% EMOTIONAL
I watched as she balanced between being professional and being sensitive to the family’s emotions.
After talking the family through the different package options, she waited patiently as they discussed the kind of coffin, wake and final disposition they wanted, right down to the colour of the flowers.
By the time we finished the discussion, it was already past 1am. And by noon the next day, everything was set up in the funeral parlour.
“You have to be 70 per cent professional and 30 per cent emotional,” she later shared with me.
Harmony Funeral Care is a sister company of Hock Hin Undertaker, which was founded by Harmony’s grandfather in 1963. Arriving from China, he saw that there was a need for funeral services and started serving Singaporeans in the bereavement industry.
But joining the trade was never a serious consideration – especially when she had a promising career.
FROM AUDITOR TO FUNERAL DIRECTOR
Graduating from the National University of Singapore with a bachelor’s degree in business, Harmony was given a priority offer from Ernst & Young. It was an interesting job that felt like a good training ground – but the hours were long.
“I was posted overseas to Houston, Texas for a short assignment when my father called to inform me that his health was not at its best,” she recounted.
“I was actually very worried at that point in time because I really love my family. I was thinking if anything were to happen, it would take more than a day to return to Singapore. And I would have to see if the flights were even available.”
Wanting to spend more time with her parents, she then began to explore being part of her family business after her return to Singapore.
Harmony also sought advice from her friends and pastor.
“My pastor said something that really struck me. He said: ‘You know, sometimes things don’t happen by chance. Some people want to try this trade, but they don’t have the access or they don’t have the relevant contacts to do so. There might be a reason.”
After taking a few months to think about her next move, Harmony decided to take the plunge.
She thought about where she would be in five years’ time and decided that she didn’t want to live with any regrets.
“I’ll be 31 years old, meaning I’d probably have climbed the corporate ladder quite a bit. My earnings would be stable, my income would be comfortable.
“Would I still want to try something so different, so new? And would I have the courage to step out of my comfort zone? Would I even have the energy to learn everything from scratch?”
And so, despite the financial incentives of being an auditor, she left the corporate scene and made the career switch.
Nonetheless, it was a journey that was filled with uncertainty, especially at the beginning.
Soon after she joined the business, a client she met expressed shock when he found out that she was a graduate.
“你这个大学生，你在这边做什么？(You’re a graduate, what are you doing here?)” he asked.
“It made me doubt my decision initially, on whether this was really the right decision to take, whether this was the right path to do.”
She also realised that death is still a taboo subject in Singapore and to “do death for a living” comes with certain stigmas.
“Once, I met my professor coincidentally and I wanted to shake her hand. However, when she learned that I was in this trade, she was a little apprehensive. She was like: ‘Oh you’re in this trade? It’s okay; we don’t have to shake hands.’”
SERVING THE DEAD – AND THE LIVING
But these hands that were shunned were also the same pair of hands that the family I met at the hospital profusely shook. I can’t tell you how many times the lady reached out for Harmony’s hands as she sincerely thanked her for her services.
And that is what keeps Harmony motivated despite the challenges. She believes that as a funeral director, she’s not just serving the dead, but also the living.
“When the dead passes on, as Christians, we believe that the soul has already departed to be with Jesus in heaven,” she explained. “But what’s left behind are the broken hearts of the loved ones, and that’s when we minister to the people who are still living.
“So funerals are really like a closure for the living to accept the fact that this person is no longer going to be around.
“I want to be there for the family members to help them through this difficult time. To help make things easier for them. To help in the healing part if I can. To lessen their load.”
And these meaningful relationships are worth the sacrifices made.
“I didn’t think much about death last time because I was young,” Harmony started. “But with the privilege of seeing death so up close, I’ve really learnt about the sacredness of life because life is so fragile.”
“And that really got me thinking about my own mortality because, if the death is due to an accident, I can be here today but gone tomorrow – who can tell the future?
Understanding this has a huge impact on how she wants to live her life. For Harmony, it’s not so much about how much time she spends on this earth, but how much of her life she has spent on others.
She explained: “In this trade, a lot of us actually joke that we come into this world empty-handed and we leave empty-handed. No matter how much wealth or how much material possessions we’ve accumulated in this life when we’re on earth, we can’t take it with us when we’re gone.
“Yet a lot of us are still in the rat race, climbing the corporate ladder, wanting to achieve so much more. But actually, I realised at the end of the day what really, really matters are the relationships I’ve formed in my lifetime.”
BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND
Harmony also encouraged everyone – even if you’re young – to not be afraid of thinking about your own mortality. For we only really start living when we learn to embrace death.
She said: “We will all die one day, but how do we want to die as a person? What are the stuff we want to leave behind, what do we want to be remembered for?
“If you begin with the end in mind, then that’s when you think about how you want to live your life as a person.”
THINK + TALK
- What does death mean to you?
- What regrets do you think you’d have at 30, 40 or 50 years old?
- What do you want to be remembered for?
- What are some steps you can take to be closer to what you’d want your legacy to be?