Ms Ang Jolie Mei, one of Singapore’s rare women in an industry dominated by men, has published her book Dying To Meet You – Confessions Of A Funeral Director.
The 36-year-old was born Ang Mei Mei, but changed her name in 2009 after repeatedly being warned that her name was unlucky – “mei ang” sounds too similar to “no husband” in Hokkien.
She is the daughter of the late Ang Yew Seng, a pioneer in Singapore’s funeral industry, who was known by some as the coffin Samaritan as he often donated coffins and provided funeral services for free to the needy and those without next- of-kin.
Ms Ang, a self-proclaimed accidental funeral director, stepped into the industry following her father’s death in 2004, when her family of five was shocked to discover that the breadwinner, who had spent his life dealing with other people’s deaths, had ironically made no preparations for his own.
Then, the studious 24-year-old who had graduated from the National University of Singapore a few years prior with an economics and psychology degree, was thrust into the role of family custodian, responsible for handling finances after her father left them without a will or much savings, and with debts he had not paid off.
The second child, who has an elder sister, a younger brother and a younger sister, began to maintain her father’s business alongside her mother who, fearing that the job would deter potential husbands, repeatedly attempted to force her daughter out of the profession.
Ms Ang Jolie Mei, who runs death-care services company Life Celebrant, has published a book Dying To Meet You – Confessions Of A Funeral Director. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
After a year, Ms Ang left to join a financial advisory firm and built a successful career, but was eventually drawn back to what she loved.
She returned to the funeral industry after four years, travelling to other countries to observe funeral practices before starting her own company Life Celebrant for death care services.
In her book, Ms Ang reflects on growing up as a daughter of a funeral director, describes what it was like to face her best friend’s death at a young age, details why she wants to change the funeral industry and more.
1 What is the most notable reaction you’ve gotten after revealing your profession?
The one that shocked me most was when I represented my father’s company, Ang Yew Seng Funeral Parlour. A lady took my name card, and gave it back immediately after seeing the words “Funeral Parlour” on it.
When I started my own company, I was very sure that I didn’t want a company name that included the word “funeral”.
2 What was your relationship with your father like?
I always idolised him even though we didn’t have a close relationship. I remember an episode when I was 13 and I came home late. My dad was shocked when I returned at night, so he scolded me. The next morning, I was very happy and told my mum why – at least he noticed that I wasn’t home.
3 How did the passing of your best friend when you were 11 affect the way you viewed death?
After finding out about the fatal car accident, I locked myself in my room and played the piano continuously for days.
His death was something we never talked about, even with primary school classmates. It was only after we’d grown up that we shared our stories of how we each grieved over that particular loss.
I realised at 11 that death is a very harsh reality and can happen to anyone at any age.
4 How have you been able to switch your mindset to think about death the way we may think about births or weddings?
Being in this field, I realised that if people can plan weddings and spend so much money on them, then why not funerals?
I joke that you can have a wedding and if you don’t like the flowers this time around, you can have another choice of colours at your next wedding.
For a funeral, you can have only one shot. So why don’t we talk about this particular certainty and do it right?
5 How has being one of the few women in an overwhelmingly male industry affected your life?
Sometimes you feel like you’re the rose among the thorns, but a rose is never complete without its thorns.
On my team, there are always men and women. There are certain things that men do better and other things that women do better.
Being a woman, it was tough when I first started, but there are advantages. Overseas, people say: “I’ve heard of you. You’re one of the few female Singaporean funeral directors.”
I’m still unmarried, but I’ve been dating my partner for six years.
When I quit my job in a nursing home and told him I was starting my company, he supported me.
In fact, he went to Tibet once and saw a sky burial, where the body is left out in the open and the vultures come and consume it as a Buddhist ritual. He witnessed that for me and was so excited, so his support really helps.
6 What would you change about Singapore’s funeral industry?
In Singapore, we are still in the infancy stage in terms of education in the funeral industry.
In other countries, they have schools to train directors, so I had to do my two-year funeral course overseas. There’re a lot of things we need to know. A funeral is not just about managing one person, but an entire family’s emotional state.
It would be good for people to have this talk more openly. People take life for granted, so I always share that death is the master of my life.
It’s very common for people to bear grudges, be angry and worry about petty stuff. At the end of the day, all this doesn’t matter.
7 Do you have any plans for your own funeral?
I’m a salsa dancer, so I feel the best way to remember me is on a dance floor where they play my favourite Latin salsa music.
I always wear boots when I dance, so I have a lot of those and a collection of fans. I would like those displayed.
Every time a friend travels, they’ll buy me a fan because they know it’s something I always carry.
I’ve actually already prepared a website where I’ve uploaded pictures of myself, videos, and messages that I’d want to show to my mum, so the site can be put up for visitors as well.
8 How would you like to be remembered?
People remember me even now as a crazy girl. I always live life to the fullest and I never worry about what happens if I go tomorrow.
I want people to remember me for the inspiration I’ve given them and the stories I’ve shared with them that, hopefully, will continue to touch their lives.
• Dying To Meet You – Confessions Of A Funeral Director by Ang Jolie Mei is available at $24.90 (paperback) at most major bookstores and at localbooks.sg
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