A Promise That Crosses Racial Boundaries In Bereavement Care

A Promise That Crosses Racial Boundaries In Bereavement Care
"The job of a bereavement care professional is not easy. They are the “siblings” of the funeral care consultants and are responsible for handling large and small matters at a funeral. Occasionally they must mediate between family members who disagree with each other, delicately and with wisdom. More difficult is breaching the gap between races and various religious beliefs, but ultimately if the heart is sincere, the effort would be appreciated. In Malaysia, a country with a diverse environment and ethnicity, the tolerance and respect for each other between its people has naturally knitted itself into a beautiful tapestry of cultural integration."

In a successful funeral, the bereavement care professional is an often-overlooked role because most people perceive funeral care consultants and bereavement care professionals as interchangeable. To be clear, a funeral care consultant is the “head”, while the bereavement care professional is the “hand and feet” who is responsible for carrying out the arrangements made by the former. Often, they are the peacemakers between family members who disagree with each other.

Bereavement care professional Sunny Tan says it bluntly: “The family members who are difficult to deal with are ‘easy’ for us, and I’m afraid of receiving consecutive cases from the same family. Because the wounds that have not been healed will be opened again and again, and even bystanders will feel sad and helpless.”

“Every time I pay my respects to the departed, I will ask the family members to speak from their hearts. If I don’t do this, I would feel that I hadn’t completed the last part of the funeral rites and would have regretted it.” Muzammil bin Ahmad Jufri (hereinafter referred to as Muz), a Muslim bereavement care professional, says that his favourite part of the profession is the ceremony of paying respects to the departed’s remains.

When Muz pays respects to the departed at the funeral, he will remind the family members to express their heartfelt words to the departed to leave no regrets. (Image source: Xiao En Group)

“I will tell the family this: the coffin is going to be sealed now. It’s the last time you will see them. If you have something in your heart, just say it, for you won’t be able to see them later.”

What he wants to say to families is: leave no regrets.

Muz and Sunny both work at Xiao En Group. As a Muslim bereavement care professional, Muz is a rare interracial occurrence in the Malaysian Chinese funeral industry. He speaks fluent Cantonese and understands Chinese. Adding to his uniqueness, is his knowledge of Chinese funeral customs. His expertise all started from his initial curiosity.

About four years ago, Muz did part-time jobs after getting off work to supplement his living, which led him to work as a waiter at a Chinese funeral company. Seeing that the priests in different mourning halls were all different, he became curious and wanted to know the stories of the Chinese cultural. He then applied for the post of a bereavement care professional with a resolve to join with a studious attitude and became who he is today.

“I asked my colleagues at the time, why does one priest have hair and the other is bald?”
The question was simple and straightforward, but it became his first impression of the Chinese funeral ceremony.

“I’m not Chinese, so I may not know everything about the rituals and customs of the religious funeral ceremonies. After all, different religions or cultural backgrounds have different funeral rites. The most common sayings I hear from elders are probably ‘seniors can’t send-off the young’, or that the widow whose husband had departed must perform a “combing” ceremony, and that pregnant women are given chopsticks and ginger for filial piety. But with the advancement of the times, many people have also simplified the ceremonial complexities, because what is more important than customs is to let the departed rest in peace and for the living to have closure.

Traditional customs vs family needs, finding a balance

Sunny Tan shared that every funeral is an opportunity to teach new personnel how to carry out their duties, because in the funeral industry, no matter how much you read, it only remains as theory. The key lies in the actual implementation, one needs to experience for themselves to get better.

“For example, the layout of the mourning hall which I believe most people have seen, is where you put fruits, flowers, etc., but how should these things be placed? After placing the god’s main offering, what is the arrangement order for the tea, rice, vegetables, fruits, etc.? Why arranged like this? The best way to learn all this is to do it on the job.”

Under normal circumstances, there is only one senior bereavement care professional at the funeral, so it’s a heavy responsibility. It is necessary to understand all the procedures and traditional customs very well, so you won’t to be tested by the family or other relatives at the scene.

The picture shows the daily work of Sunny Tan (first from the left). (Image source: Xiao En Group)

He spoke about the customs for a pregnant woman to show filial piety as an example. Pregnancy is a happy event, while a funeral is a sombre event. Traditionally, it is forbidden for red and white to be present simultaneously, so certain procedures will be placed for “protection” or blessings. The bereavement care professional will prepare a pair of chopsticks and some ginger for pregnant women, tie them up with red cloth, and let the pregnant women carry it with them during the funeral, because chopsticks are symbolic for “quick son”, which means “hurry up”, and since chopsticks comes in a pair, it also means good things come in pairs. Ginger has many functions in Chinese traditions, such as calming shock and expelling wind. With the taste of ginger, it is expected to achieve the effect of soothing the fetus.

“Different religions also have corresponding practices. For example, the Taoist teacher will give someone a talisman to ensure safety. The above mentioned are traditional Chinese customs, so no matter their religious beliefs, if they are Chinese, we will tell their families that they can do this and we will prepare the necessary items. The family is free to refuse it, though generally they won’t.”

Sunny mentions that there is also a “comb” ceremony, but according to his experience, fewer families request for it these days.

The comb symbolizes that the two have officially become a “hair-bonded” couple. Anyone familiar with the custom knows the bride will carry out the hair combing ceremony on the eve of their wedding, a blessing ritual for new couple starting their life together. However, when one of them passes away, the living partner will break a comb, put half of it in the coffin, and throw the other half behind themselves to indicate that the couple are now separated by death and are free to go their separate ways. Especially the young wife, the significance means that her husband’s family has agreed to let her go on to start her new life and is allowed to remarry in the future.

“It’s not like what superstitions say that the purpose of the comb breaking is to prevent the living partner from being ‘pulled down to hell’ after the death of the partner. When we understand the true meaning of traditional folk customs, we make humanized adjustments according to the wishes of the living. Or in other words, when dealing with the departed and facing the living who’re grieving, the details we insist on practicing should be based on empathy.”

The bereavement care professionals’ knowledge of traditional customs and attention to every detail stems from empathy. In the face of conflicts between traditional folk customs and personal needs, we need to find a balance based on understanding and empathize with the grief of family members.

In the face of life and death, the difference in skin colour is very small

For Muz, empathy holds the utmost importance. It wasn’t easy for him to engage in this line of work across different races, religions, and beliefs. Some had even mistaken him for a foreign migrant worker and questioned his professional ability. Despite the mistreatment, he never made excuses. Instead, he completed the funeral in a pragmatic manner, used professional knowledge to solve the family’s doubts and proved his ability with his actions and sincere heart.

“The settings of the mourning halls are different for every religion and locality. When setting up, I will consider the place where I work as my home, like its my own personal activities and regard the main house as my family, because there is only one chance to perform a funeral. There isn’t a second chance.”

Despite his own religious beliefs, as a Muslim, Muz never shuns other religious cultures and customs, and will bow in the mourning hall to show respect. (Image source: Xiao En Group)

As Muz himself has experienced the sudden death of a friend but was unable to see them one last time, he understands the feelings of the family’s grief very well. So when he is assisting a family with the funeral, he will silently endure the tension of riled up emotions when faced with doubts about himself or encountering a provocative situation.

“Once we were doing business out-of-state, and we asked the family members to lead the way the day before the funeral. We had planned the funeral route, but something happened on the day of the funeral. Another relative had changed the route temporarily. I could only listen to his instructions. He got into our car and was responsible for leading the way, but then another person said no and ordered us to follow his car, but the funeral team was led by the relative’s car.”

“It takes about three hours to drive from the funeral home to the cemetery. Usually, we will stop at the rest stop to let everyone go to the bathroom, but the relative said that no rest was necessary and continued straight to the cemetery. I believe that the relatives in the bus must have staved off the call of nature (urinating) very hard, because when we arrived at the destination, some of them asked why we didn’t stop to rest and made complained about it.”

Feeling silly, yet his professionalism wouldn’t allow him to express any exasperation, he could only comfort the family with a smile on his face and finish his duties.

When asked if he felt that he was being mistreated because of race, Muz replied without hesitation: “Not at all, I just want to work.”From his conversation, it is clear that Muz is an open-minded and patient character. Even when emotions become turbulent during an incident, he will not hold grudges after the event, but only stick to his beliefs and do what he needs to do.

“Kita buat kerja dengan ikhlas, kita buat benda yang baik, pasti akan dibalas dengan baik” 
(“We do our work sincerely, we do good things, we will definitely be rewarded in return”).

* Original article first appeared in 访问 The Interview . Click Here

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