The Life Celebrant
Q1) What is the nature of your business?
The Life CelebrantTM (心篇章) is a death care business that provides personalised and customised funeral services. Under The Life Celebrant, we also provide two unique services to serve the community, Showers Of LoveTM (留心语) and Angel Stars (天使心). Showers Of LoveTM give the dearly departed a final shower, a spa service for them; as their final act of service and final act of thanksgiving to remember all the beautiful memories they have shared. Angel Stars service provides our little ones, the often forgotten group, with a dignified and beautiful departure.
Q2) When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur / take over your family? When my father passed away in 2004, I immediately quit my job at a logistics company and maintain my father’s business alongside my mother out of filial piety. I was known as an “Accidental” Funeral Director. My older sister was an accountant with one of the big four accounting firms, and my two younger siblings were still in school so I decided that I was the most suitable to leave my job and help with the family business. However, after a year in the funeral industry (2005), my mother insisted that I leave the business as she felt that I was too young and needed more experience elsewhere. My mother also feared that the job would deter potential husbands. Hence, I decided to leave the family business and joined an independent financial advisory firm as I wanted to be financially literate. Although I did very well in the company, I was eventually drawn back to what I loved. Consequently, I left my successful five-figure monthly salary career in 2009 and took the opportunity to travel to other countries to observe their funeral practices and cultures. In one of the countries, New Zealand, I did a 10-day funeral director exchange program with a well-known funeral home. This was the first time I witnessed a personalised funeral officiated by a funeral celebrant. I never knew what the role of a funeral celebrant does and was very curious to find out. I had earlier helped to embalm this lovely old lady, we were given instructions by her family to make sure she wore her favourite pink lipstick and a matching pink scarf slung around her neck. I was very satisfied with the way she was presented as she laid at rest in the casket. The funeral director asked me to join in the funeral service so that I could experience a funeral celebrant service. In New Zealand, depending on the race, they usually do not have a few days funeral wake like in Singapore. Instead, they have a 1-2 hour funeral service before the cremation/burial.
Prior to the start of the old lady’s funeral service, I was distributing program sheets to the funeral attendees. The program sheet contained the order of service, a list of eulogists, photographs of the lady, her favourite poem, as well as a thank you note from her family. During the funeral service, the funeral celebrant spoke about the old lady’s life story, where she was born, how she was brought up, how she met her husband, how many children she had, etc. Then the funeral celebrant invited other speakers to the podium to describe her, how she had made a difference to them, and why she was special. As memories were recounted, there were laughter and smiles through tears. I realised then it was through this kind of commemoration experience that there would have an immense meaning
and healing power for the families and friends.
It was this funeral celebrant service that made me decide that I did not want to just organise traditional and sombre funerals. I want to give an option to the community. To give them the option to celebrate the life of their departed loved one and commemorate their memories. I felt that such funerals were important but missing in Singapore. Hence, in 2010, I decided to start my own funeral home, The Life Celebrant.
Q3) What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
I always considered myself as an “Accidental” Funeral Director. I stumbled into this industry after the passing of my father. The end of his career was the beginning of mine. When I first joined the industry in 2004, it was out of filial piety to help my mum manage the business and family. It was during this time, I felt strongly that many aspects of Singapore’s death care industry could be improved. My experiences in other countries’ death care industry further underlined that there was a need to revamp and innovate our country’s death care industry.
Q4) How did you put together all the resources needed to start your business? For example: getting the start-up capital, hiring staff, doing sales and marketing, advertising, etc. Apart from borrowing, a huge portion of the start-up capital came from my financial days. I rented office space and hired a manager to assist me with the business. I did not hire any more manpower back then, as I could not predict the business volume in our business. Hence, I worked closely with Ang Yew Seng Funeral Parlour (my parent’s business) to provide the manpower and vehicles that we needed. We also work with various suppliers such as caskets providers, florists and embalmers. Along the way, as the business grew, I started to expand my team. Initially, it was challenging to hire manpower because of the stigma people have with the death care industry. However, I have witnessed the change in recent years, with the younger generation interested in pursuing their passion and interest in this death care industry.
Q5) What are some interesting stories you have about your first few customers/first few years in business?
Many of the funerals that I have to conduct have impacted me and left a mark in my heart. That is why I published my book, Dying To Meet You, in 2017. To share with readers the funerals that have impacted me and taught me more about life. One memorable funeral that I had to handle was the funeral of a six-year-old girl, Misha. I visited the parents of six-year-old Misha, Rynthia and Wei Hao, to discuss the little girl’s funeral celebratory. Misha was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a malignant form of a brain tumour in children. The first time I saw Misha, she had a nasal cannula placed in her nostrils and was washing her toys. Just a few minutes into our conversation, I could already feel that she is a very intelligent girl and she was an old soul trapped in a child’s body.
She planned her farewell “party” (funeral), from the theme to her outfit. She also made photo collages where she handpicked and arranged each photograph, which was displayed at her “party”. As she wanted to gift her guests for attending her “party”, Misha handmade a card that had a smiley photo of her along with a Bible verse she picked out – “All go to the same place; all come from dust and to dust all return” – which also informed her decision to be cremated instead of buried. She made sure that we give everyone who came to this party this card; she shared that she hopes her card with her smiley face will cheer people up whenever they have a sad day.
This story of Misha guided me to realise that children are not afraid of death. Instead, they live every day fearlessly in order not to let their parents feel subdued. She is one incredible young girl that I would love to share her story because when a six-year-old is not afraid of death, why would and why should we, as adults be afraid of death.
Q6) Do your parents support you to start your business?
In the beginning, my mother was very worried and she was rather relentless in persuading me to try out other careers instead. She did not want me to follow her footsteps. When my mother first got married to my father, her friends shunned her. They imagined an aura of death about her, and that it would rub off on them if they associated with her. The lack of work-life-balance and the stigma people associated with the death care industry had made my mother worried that I will never find a husband. However, at one point in time, my mother probably witnessed my commitment and my passion for this industry. She supports me a lot with my work in The Life Celebrant Pte Ltd.
Q7) Why did you choose each other as your business partner (applicable when the company has more than 1 business partner)?
Q8) What motivates or inspires you?
The motivation that drives me is the gratification I received from bereaved families after the funeral. When they give us a hug to thank us or write a testimonial or a gift to show their appreciation to me and my team. This type of satisfaction, I would not be able to find in other careers. Moreover, witnessing the passion of my TLC family, as they give their Tender Love Care to the bereaved families, drives me every day to lead them on in this career. I am so grateful to every single one for them. Despite sacrificing their family gatherings, their personal time and their sleep to serve a family in need, they never complained at all.
Q9) Why is the company called “The Life Celebrant”?
The Life Celebrant in Mandarin is 心篇章, translated it means Chapters from the Heart. We believe that everyone has a life story, and these stories are worthy to be told, shared, and remembered. We advocate that “Funeral should not be a day in a lifetime but a life in a day”. The memories of the departed live on forever in the hearts (心) of those who live on, and that death is not the end but the beginning of a new chapter (篇章). It should be an occasion to celebrate the life of a person. The Life Celebrant (TLC) also coincides with the term “Tender, Loving, Care”, which makes it easy for people to remember. We are TLC family serving families with TLC.
Q10) How do you think your business have made a positive impact or contribute to the community that you serve? For example: creating jobs for Singaporeans or underprivileged; upgrading the skills of employees; improving livelihoods or lifestyles of customers.
Above all, The Life Celebrant made a positive impact on the community that we serve by providing closure for the family. For instance, Showers Of Love strives to provide family members with a private and therapeutic ceremony to express their grief and find solace in performing a final act of service for their dearly departed. Many of The Life Celebrant’s customers have found closure after engaging Showers of Love as well as funeral celebrant services.
Q11) What is your company vision and mission? How do you convey these to your company staff and team members?
Vision (in the regional industry): A world where individuals and communities are empowered through open conversations about death. Vision (in the local industry): To professionalise the local funeral industry through public education, credentials and licensing. Mission: As life celebrants, we strive to celebrate and commemorate how you lived and leave your life, by providing customised and meaningful funeral planning and preplanning services for individuals and families, and to do so with thoughtfulness, integrity and compassion.
Q12) Can you remember your worst day in business or a time when you felt like giving up? What happened that made you feel that way and how did you triumph over it?
I have never felt like giving up because many people trust and have faith in me. However, there was one incident that had impacted me greatly. Marianne was only 40-years-old when she approached The Life Celebrant to plan her funeral. It is one of the services provided by the business to allow one to take charge of how people will remember oneself and how they will celebrate one’s life.
One morning, after preparing her contract, I received a call and was informed that the lady had committed suicide. The lady was very bubbly and she never once showed any signs of suicidal thoughts. This incident made us pondered, “Why didn’t we realised that she may have thoughts to suicide?”. During the funeral, the lady’s father broke down in grief several times. He held onto my hands and begged me not to let his daughter go. It took me a long time to triumph over this incident, but salsa dancing helped me to overcome it.
Q13) What are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business? How did you overcome these challenges? Please share some specific examples of the action you took to overcome the challenges.
Jason was a passenger in his father’s grey multi-purpose vehicle. As the car streaked along the expressway, a trailer trucker going in the opposite direction swerved to the right to overtake a vehicle in front of it. There was no road divider to stop the trailer as it shot straight into the path of the multi-purpose vehicle. Jason, his father, two sisters and grandmother died on the spot. Jason’s mother, one sister and one brother were in ICU. Until now, the Lims’ case has been one of the hardest I have ever worked on.
As I had to organise the funeral for five, I had to think hard about how to manage the logistics, such as trying to procure enough hearses to transport the caskets and managing the flow of visitors. The accident also made great tabloid fodder. Reporters, photographers, and videographers were lurking around the lobby of the funeral parlour trying to ferret out information for the next day’s headlines. That was the first funeral I organised in which the media were interested, and I had to learn on the spot on how to manage the reporters and photographers so to protect the family members. It was also this funeral that I learnt that I have to broaden my role as a funeral director. I have to be the family’s protector, mediator as well as public relations offices. It was also this funeral that convinced me that there are so many areas of care that we can help many bereaved families during their most difficult time.
In the aftermath of the Lims’ funeral, I was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. This was one of the funerals that were so devastating that the sadness never quite goes away. Salsa dancing is a big part of my life and is an outlet for me to overcome emotions that I have to face in my work.
Q14) What are some of your proudest business achievement to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?
My biggest achievement to date is Showers Of Love. The Life Celebrant is the first in Singapore to introduce Showers Of Love in 2018. This service allows family members to perform a final act of service for their dearly departed. We crafted Showers Of Love to encompass the expression of the five love languages, for family members to express their gratitude while being able to grieve and heal. When I first launched the service, naysayers and competitors in the industry deemed it as inappropriate. However, many families who have to engage Showers Of Love have feedback to us that the service has helped them tremendously to grieve and recover. Being able to go the extra mile for the families we serve is very important and meaningful to me.
Q15) Can you describe the company culture that you have? What is your relationship with your employees?
I always remind my team, “To go fast, you can go alone. But to go far, we must go as a team.” We are like a family standing by each other to serve our clients and their families anytime and anywhere. They believe in me, and never hesitate to go the extra mile for the families we served. As a family, they also often treat me like a friend. I also give my employees a lot of ownership and leave the operations to them to work on it. However, if they face any problems or issues that they are unable to solve, they will always look for me. We are TLC family serving families with TLC.
Q16) What do you see for your business in the next 5 years, and does it include any plans for expansion?
We have plans to expand our Showers Of Love to other locations such as the client’s home, as we understand that some families will like to have this service in their own house, especially if the decedent is a child. We are also looking to start our funeral education institution.
Q17) Do you have any competitors, and how do you differentiate yourself from them?
Many funeral companies in the death care industry are coming up with innovative services, although they often become imitated quickly. To differentiate The Life Celebrant from our competitors, we place our clients’ needs first and strive to not only meet but exceed our clients’ expectations. As the industry is constantly evolving, I will look out for other countries’ funeral practices that I can incorporate into my own business.
Q18) What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
Hard work but fulfilling.
Q19) With the changes in the market today, do you think it has become harder or easier to
succeed in business? Why do you say so?
The changes in the market have made it harder to succeed in the business. In the past, my father could penetrate the death care industry easily. However, in today’s context, there are plenty of competitors out in the market with innovative ideas. The presence of the internet has also made new ideas easily imitated. The only constant is change, henceforth in order to strive to be ahead, we have to keep ourselves on our toes and constantly innovate and move with the demands/needs of clients.