Challenging the taboo on the dead - Khanthan Vithilingam

“To the well organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.” No points for guessing where that quote is from  but to the uninitiated, this beautiful line was said by Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter in the novel , Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone . It’s a wonderful quote from an amazing book but in a society such as ours , is death really considered the next great adventure?

For us Indians, death is always seen as something dark and inauspicious. It is a sad day when a life is lost but is the concept of death really so evil and taboo that everytime you go for a funeral or wake , you are not allowed to enter the house without washing your feet? In my household , at least,  after returning from a funeral , a decontamination exercise is immediately launched where I am rushed into the bathroom to have a shower and told to keep the clothes that I wore at the funeral at arm’s length from everyone until I deposit it delicately in the washing machine. I did my research on this practice and found out that the main motivation for doing this was to remove all the bacteria that could be present from coming into a contact with a decomposing human body. But this was not the answer I received when I asked my relatives about this practice . Most of them attributed this practice to either washing off the spirits residing on your person or making sure whatever the deceased died of (if it was sickness) will not be passed on to you. I don’t know about you but it was the second reason that completely convinced me.

When you treat death as something unnatural and taboo , not only are you being insensitive of the deceased, but you’re turning death into something that is evil and should be dreaded. Not that I am an expert on the concept of death, but isn’t it hypocritical to say “May the deceased rest in peace” when you yourself are afraid and even apprehensive of death and by extension , the deceased ? This is the mindset that individuals like Khanthan Vithilingam, director of funeral services at the Singapore Indian Casket Services, seek to change by going into the funeral services business in Singapore. Despite the ominous ‘ d-word’ that is associated with his job, Khanthan continues to have a passion for providing the deceased and their families with the closure that they need before they can move on. At 28, he is probably the youngest Indian funeral services director here  and he talks to us about going into this unusual profession , his experiences with foreign worker deaths and the challenges that he has faced thus far.



How did you get involved in the funeral business?
I started out by helping my Uncle out in his business at the age of 15. That was how I was initially introduced to the trade.

Did you face any resistance from your family when you first joined the business?
Of course! When I first started my family was not as supportive of my decision. I couldn’t blame them though as I knew this trade has a certain stigma attached to it. As I progressed and they eventually grew to accept it.


​How did the decision from employee to business owner happen?​
I saw that it was a dying trade. It’s something that no one wanted to do. I knew I was equipped with the right knowledge that I had gained over the years. That was what pushed me into starting the company, After learning the fundamentals, in order to stay competitive, I knew change needed to happen. I wanted to be different and give the client choices on how they would want a funeral to be conducted, after-all, the deceased is their loved one and they should make the decision as to what they want to do. Being flexible and working on real situations faced by the bereaved family still makes us stand out in the local Indian funeral trade.




When you started, were others in the industry unhappy that you were diverging from the way things were usually done?
I did not change everything entirely. Funeral rites & rituals are still done in the traditional way. The main change made were the logistics. For example, we integrated the limousine hearse for local Hindu funerals. As most of us are aware, most Hindu funerals are held at home or at a funeral parlor. There are times that families wish to hold the funeral at the void- decks as their homes are unable to hold he volume of mourners expected. Its small changes and trying to accommodate requests that most started to see as a point of differentiation against others as time went by.

​It has been more than 4 years since you started your own Company. ​
What were the types of challenges you faced?

Firstly, manpower was a huge hurdle as it is extremely hard to find people who want to work in this industry. Secondly, there are a lot of competitors from other companies. You need to differentiate yourself from the rest.  At the end of the day, I chose this trade because I did not want it to be a trade where there was no one left to do it the right way. We have the youngest team of funeral directors in the industry right now and age being no indicator, I am certain our service standards is second to none.  


What else is special about your casket services?
We not only offer each client expert advice but also lay out the various options available to the family at any given time. We believe in letting the client decide how they want the funeral to be conducted. We have packages and detailed pricing in our catalogues and we do not deviate from it. However, we provide services for the needy at a very low or no cost. We do not charge for cases where the deceased is a baby as we consider the soul of a baby to be pure. 



​If you don't mind us asking, ​how much does an average funeral cost?
An average funeral will cost around $5000. The cheapest package is $3500. The higher end funerals tend to cost about $7000 to $8000.

​We read the newspaper report on your part in helping foreign workers who have passed on during their employment here. Anything you want to comment on that particular issue​?
A blue collar industry does come with its set of risks. With workers who are hard at physical labour, you are bound to get injuries and ill health. What is also real and not mentioned in mainstream Media ​are the number of suicide cases amongst the foreign workers. The harsh life of a blue collar foreign worker is real. It is not uncommon for a worker to have taken loans in India to be able to seek out an opportunity just to work in Singapore. These loans are usually taken and paid to the agents who get them jobs in Singapore. These workers would probably have to work their first year to settle their debts before even beginning to save money. Some of them are given false promises on the type of work and the salary they will be getting. Helping in just a small way to appreciate these workers who have helped built this country I call home. Helping is nothing more than giving back within my means.


​Does a suicide case make things any difficult for you? ​
It does not become difficult because the company will still foot the bill for our services. The sad part comes when some of these employers try and haggle with us on prices. Our costs in performing our services are real. A person who has been working for them has died and all they want to do is try save a buck. Sometimes, I have to remind them that a life has been lost, that too while working for them and the least they can do is to treat the person with the respect they deserve.
 
Photo Credit: The New Paper


​Any regrets in getting into this business​?
 It's stressful like every other business is. What is uncertain is the number of cases we handle each month. What is certain is our running cost. Some people say that we are not affected by economy as deaths still occurs all the time. As much as that seems true, clients do hold back spending when the economy is bad. What is real is that our funeral package prices has not risen over the past 20 years but our running cost has doubled over that time. Nevertheless, this is something that I do with passion and I don’t see it as a business.

Up till now, I still get the stick. There are some who still consider me as Suay (unlucky). But my close ones see me for who I am and that is all that matters to me.​

As entrepreneur, its necessary to have grow our revenue, increase our sales. Such a thought process would normally hope for more death. How do you deal with such a dilemma?
As much as it's true to grow our revenue we need more cases. We do not hope or pray for more deaths. Instead what we work on is how to ensure people know about us and remember our services. We spend quite a significant amount on our marketing and we ensure high service standards for clients to remember us and to refer us in future. 

What is the most difficult funeral that you have had to conduct and why? 
I would say it would have to be my good friend Mohan’s funeral & my Grandfather's funeral back in August 2015. Both funerals were 3 days apart and I was busy with the funeral arrangements that I couldn't take part in the rituals and couldn't mourn with the family. It was a horrid week for me.  


Is there anything in the industry that you would like to change?
I would hope for the government to improve on our funeral infrastructure in Singapore. The lack of funeral parlors is real especially with the aging population and we are indeed far behind in this compared to other first world countries. We have heard about changes being in the pipeline for a long time. We only have to wait and see what is in store for the funeral industry. 


Do you have any aspirations/ambitions in this business?
I hope to develop Singapore Indian Casket to become the best service provider for the Indian Community in Singapore. I hope to be able to have our own funeral parlors for the Indians and eventually my goal is to ensure every Indian has a dignified send-off regardless of background or financial difficulties.
 
You can read more about him in the following related articles

http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/millennials-in-the-funeral-business

http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/manpower/meet-the-man-who-gives-foreign-workers-killed-at-work-a-dignified-farewell

 

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