Preparing For The Departed

You will need to be detached in order to do the things that need to be done when a loved one dies. It’ll be easier when you’re prepared with a checklist before they leave. Here are some of the things my siblings and I had to prepare when our parents passed away in 2011 and this year:

Originally published on Medium.com

You will need to be detached in order to do the things that need to be done when a loved one dies. It’ll be easier when you’re prepared with a checklist before they leave. Here are some of the things my siblings and I had to prepare when our parents passed away in 2011 and this year:

Reporting The Departure 
You have 24 hours to register the departed’s death at either the ICA or at any police station. What you need is your IC, the departed’s IC and a certificate of cause of death — usually given by a hospital or a doctor.

Photograph
You want visitors to the wake/funeral and people who make it a point to read the obituaries to see a photograph they want to remember your loved one by. You may think this is simple — you just open your laptop and scroll through pics — but when your loved one is an elderly person who’s spent a large part of their last decade bedridden and not looking particularly photogenic, you may want to start looking through old photo albums and collections of passport photos. Pick a nice, happy picture.

You might find some of the photos blur or pixelated when blown up, so be prepared to spend some time on this if you need to have consensus between family members. There is also this convention that the departed needs to be depicted in a photograph wearing a suit. I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask why there was a dress code, and let the funeral home’s resident Photoshop expert blend the sharpest-looking suit my father never wore. Seriously, they do it quite well.

On hindsight, I would’ve left the photograph as it was — my father smiling in a batik/hawaiian shirt, probably stained with gravy from some pork dish — and I’m quite sure his friends would have remembered him this way too.

Funeral Director / Undertaker
Do some research, confer with family, and have a number handy. The company we used was a subsidiary of a church, and the staff involved in both my parents’ funerals handled everything, and us, with immense respect and sensitivity. You will need to confer with family regarding religion and ritual — I’ve seen many families squabble over what beliefs their departing loved ones held, and I can tell you, it will add to your anguish. My maternal grandfather’s funeral wake was a compromise made by his fourteen children — there were Christian hymns and prayers in the morning, and Taoist rituals in the afternoon. I think nights were reserved for the secular activities of eating and mahjong.

The funeral director will handle everything, including the layout and publication of an obituary. Note that it’s not compulsory to have an obituary, but it does serve a purpose — the departed’s old friends and acquaintances may only know of their demise through the papers.

The Wake
Some churches and funeral homes have rooms, and void-decks are also an option. The only thing about void deck wakes is that you will want to have someone guarding the casket and other things through the night. Whereas if you held the wake in a funeral home or a church, you would be able to set a cut-off time for visitors.
The funeral director will also ask you what you require. You may want to order the ubiquitous wake buffet or just packet drinks and snacks. You can return any unopened peanut and drink cartons. You won’t need to get anything else — the director will provide you with condolence books, red thread, and other necessities like playing cards and so on.

You may want to assign the collection of condolence cash gifts to a trusted friend or relative, and ask givers to put down their names so you can thank them later.

Friends and workmates will want to give wreaths and floral arrangements — but you have to be mindful of having to dispose of these later. No, they can’t be cremated or buried with the departed. A reasonable option is to state in the obituary that you prefer not to have floral arrangements and wreaths, and that the money that would have been spent on these be donated to charity instead.

“Paying respects” to the departed describes how visitors attend a wake, some saying a prayer before going to the head of the coffin where the glass panel is, and sometimes making a comment on how the departed looks. Be prepared for awkward comments.

The NEA gives you seven days from the day of death to when the remains are dispatched. If you intend to extend the wake past seven days, you can apply to the NEA for permission.

The Funeral and Beyond
You will need to choose between a cremation or a burial — which may be a given because of your religious practice, but all burials in Singapore a limited to 15 years. The only active burial ground in Singapore is at Choa Chu Kang, and is actually a complex of concrete crypts which will contain the departed’s coffin. After 15 years, the NEA may exhume remains and families are given the option of cremating the remains or re-interring (if there is an available burial ground by then). That’s right, burial is not freehold.
The crematorium at Mandai is a modern complex complete with service halls and an automated furnace with a viewing gallery.

The collection of the departed’s ashes can be traumatic. It’s as if you’ve had to say goodbye again, by putting the skeletal remains of the departed into whatever receptacle your funeral director may have recommended. It doesn’t help your emotions that the NEA gives you a Toyogo box to collect the ash and bone from another receptacle. It is a dusty affair, and some bone fragments may end up on the table or floor. If you’re not up for it, tell the funeral director, and they’ll do everything for you.

You will have the option of keeping the ashes of the departed at home or in a niche at churches, temples and also government-run columbariums. Scattering of ashes at sea is also permitted with an application, but limited to an area near Pulau Semakau. Think of it as a smokers’ corner for the dead.

After all that is done, you will have some more time to grieve, if you need to. And if you need to, you must.

Resource: NEA Care For The Dead Services

Ceremonies Are For Eating

We send my father off this afternoon with a church service and cremation. The ritual and ceremony of the event would have made him feel a little awkward. Most gatherings did.

We send my father off this afternoon with a church service and cremation. The ritual and ceremony of the event would have made him feel a little awkward. Most gatherings did. He would mumble through hymns, anthems and carols and once was even caught holding a hymnal upside down. He liked nothing better than to sit in a quiet corner and stuff his face with his favourite foods – and there were many – and then chuckle when he was found doing so.

When his mother passed away in 1999, my father, being one of two offspring, was tasked with marching and chanting around her coffin with the Taoist priest-mediums every few hours. They made perhaps about 8 rounds each session. At one of these sessions, my father dragged his feet mournfully around his mother’s coffin, lips pursed as if in protest at having to repeat whatever Taoist mantra that was being sung/shouted.

I remember watching him do two laps and then losing sight of him among the robes, ribbons, and incense. I thought at first the he might have stumbled and fallen, but the others in the procession would’ve helped him up. I thought he might’ve been overcome by grief and excused himself, so I got up from where I was seated and looked around the family’s Hose Road Seremban house for him.

I found him at a corner table, feeding himself a plate of funeral caterer’s beehoon and curry. When I asked him if he was alright, he said, “two rounds enough lah, no need to do so many times”, and carried on stuffing his face.

So, while I may not excuse myself and sneak out this afternoon when we hold the Catholic service that was arranged by my brother, I might sneak a handful of groundnuts, kwa chee or M&Ms in my pocket and stuff my face a bit. Don’t mind the crunching ok? Papa wouldn’t have.

A Tribute to Our Mother

She was a woman of exceptional courage. She faced all of life’s challenges head on, fielding everything thrown at her with great tenacity, determination and always well-dressed and immaculately groomed while doing it. She lived life with a passion, always willing to try new experiences and learn new things.

“If life hands you lemons, make lemonade”, so the saying goes. Well, our mother was given somewhat better ingredients than just lemons (being blessed with intelligence, good looks and personality) and she whipped up a fabulous feast, a sumptuous buffet spread of all the joys of life and we her family and her friends were all privileged to partake, nourished by her care and concern.

How could so much energy and life be packed into such a petite frame? What was the source of her indomitable spirit? I believe that it was her faith.

Hers was not a faith professed merely on the lips. Hers was a “true grit” faith lived out every single day of her life ever since she accepted the Lord as a teenager in school in Seremban, Malaysia. It was shaped and forged through her journey through all of life’s greatest joys and deepest disappointments. Her faith was what empowered her in her many battles with ill health. Suffering polio as a child which left her walking with a limp and a deformed knee, she nonetheless adapted her gait and could take the stairs at an impressive speed in her younger days. She defeated cancer more than 10 years ago and when handed a diagnosis of metastasis toward the end of her treatment, her faith in God’s plan for her was so unflinching that she rejected the advice of the best specialists in the Sloan-Kettering clinic and refused further treatment. Her decision terrified us, her loved ones, but she had no fear, only supreme confidence that the Lord would heal her in His way.

Hers was not a passive faith that is the close relative of fatalism. It was a faith of action and active prayer. She was not afraid of making decisions because she was not afraid of making mistakes, even if she did not like to admit that she did sometimes make mistakes. She covered us all in prayer, every single day.

Hers was not a blind, unquestioning faith. We have heard her question God many, many times, why, when she has had to endure or when her loved ones and dear friends have had to suffer personal tragedies. Yet these questions have only strengthened her faith. No matter what she endured, she still had joy and a spirit of thankfulness.

Her strength and energy were often employed in support and defence of her loved ones. A woman of strong opinions, she was certainly not hesitant to voice them. She had no patience for hypocrites and bullies and dealt with them in her own inimitable way. But for all her forceful nature, she had immense compassion and a tender heart for those in need. She was generous with her material possessions but more importantly, generous with her time and spirit, always giving of herself to her friends and loved ones. She was a great enabler and encourager.

In recent years, she enjoyed her three grandsons Joshua, Kai and Michael enormously. She was the Great Protector against parental discipline, dispensing largesse in the form of keropok and soda pop. She had the natural ability to relate to them on their level, whether that was teddy bears and Thomas the Tank Engine or iPods and Apps.

She lived life to the fullest and appreciated the finer things in life – a good cup of cuppucino, a lip-smacking char kuay teow, beautiful clothes, music. Most of all, she enjoyed people, reaching out to them and connecting with them. She had the rare gift of being able to reach across the generation gap and her friends could be anyone aged from eight to eighty years old.

She was so full of life and energy that it is hard to believe that she is not with us anymore. We will miss her but she will always be a part of us. We are truly blessed.

Written by Mei Ling, Benjamin & Kenneth