Bereavement Care: Life Education Helped Me Regain Lost Recognition

Bereavement Care: Life Education Helped Me Regain Lost Recognition

That year, when the number of deaths from COVID-19 was still rising every day, bereavement care professional Chan Teck Yong found himself entrusted with the solemn task of organizing the funerals for those lost to the pandemic. In those moments, he had to offer solace to grieving families with a composed demeanour, reassuring them with words like, “It’s okay, everything will pass.” Unbeknownst to them, his own father, also vulnerable due to his age, was grappling with COVID-19 in the hospital, battling the illness with all his strength. As he uttered those consoling words to the bereaved families, it seemed as though he was also soothing his own burdened heart.

In 2017, Teck Yong in search of professional advancement, transitioned from his promising role as a pet retail store manager to the funeral industry, working at a coffin shop. After honing his skills for 2 years, he joined the ranks of Xiao En’s bereavement care professional in 2019, now boasting 7 years of experience in the funeral industry.

Seven years ago, he still vividly remembers the first few days when he started working at the coffin shop, having to go to the mortuary at University Malaya Medical Centre to prepare the deceased for embalming. “I said I wasn’t afraid, but it was a lie. It was a body that had been dissected and taken out of the freezer. At that time, I worked with an experienced colleague, quietly helping to clean, dress, and embalm the body. In truth, I was very nervous and sweating profusely. The chilling touch of the body, devoid of warmth, is something I will never forget in my lifetime.”

Accommodated at the coffin shop for 2 years

That year, at the age of 19, Teck Yong faced death so very starkly for the first time. Fortunately, he was under an apprenticeship system at the time, learning alongside experienced colleagues while working. However, that wasn’t his most challenging experience. “A few months later, I encountered more severe cases, such as those who died in accidents, with limbs missing. I won’t go into detail, but I had to muster up the courage to complete the embalming process. Looking back now, I’m not even sure how I managed it.”

Furthermore, Teck Yong faced challenges beyond the job’s learning curve. Not only did he have to overcome his fear of frontline work with death in a short time, but also deal with strong opposition from his family. “When my family found out about my job, their reaction was huge because they were even more scared and superstitious than I was. They couldn’t even bear to hear me talk about it. So, to avoid conflicts with them, I chose to leave home and accommodated at the coffin shop for 2 years.”

No one understood why a young person born in the 1990s would persevere like this. To explore and learn about funeral processes and various job positions he had no prior knowledge of, what is it that truly kept him going? “Working at the coffin shop, we called it ‘handling everything’. I had to do everything, and after a few months, I slowly got used to facing different situations. The reason I can persevere is probably because, firstly, my personality is to not retreat once I’ve made a choice; I dared to accept this challenge. Secondly, to be honest, I have never received so many ‘thank you’ wishes from people in any other job.”

Receiving many “Thank You” wishes in the funeral industry

Having worked as a waiter, salesperson, construction worker, customer service representative, and more, he openly states that in his line of work, he must constantly say “thank you” to different people, even though they may not necessarily appreciate it. However, in the funeral industry, it is this sincere “thank you” from bereaved family members that serves as a wake-up call for him, making him feel that he is doing the right thing, finding the true value of his life, and receiving validation as someone needed by society. Perhaps, this is the strong driving force behind his perseverance.

“After working at a coffin shop for two years, I felt like my learning had reached a plateau. I wanted to break through to a larger environment to study funeral processes on a more systematic and structured scale. By a stroke of luck, I went for an interview at Xiao En Centre and I seized the opportunity without hesitation.”

The past two years of training not only enriched Teck Yong’s experience but also gradually bridged the gap between him and his family. It seems his parents have started to let go of their superstitions, calling him home on the phone. “At that time, my mother would prepare ‘red flower water’ (used in folk customs for warding off evil) for me outside the door. In order to reassure them that their child is safe, whenever I return home from work, I would first wash my face and wipe my body with the red flower water outside the door before entering the house, to put their minds at ease.”

Love supersedes all boundaries

If simple rituals can bring us closer, Teck Yong wishes he could have done it sooner. However, the process of adjustment and mutual understanding takes more time than imagined. He jokes that his parents never took the initiative to talk to him about work details in daily life. Instead, it was during family gatherings on festive occasions when relatives, like curious children, would ask him about his work on the funeral frontlines. He noticed his parents listening intently as he passionately explained. In that moment, his parents had the opportunity to slowly enter his world.

“For example, I have organised various farewell ceremonies, attended various funerals, and relatives would exclaim, ‘How can you dare to do this?’ To some extent, they silently admire my courage. Although my parents have not expressed it verbally, I can feel that they are gradually accepting this matter.”

Over time, as he continued working at Xiao En Centre year after year, gradually, without him even noticing when it began, the “red flower water” at his doorstep gradually faded away, and the ceremonial encounters seemed to have naturally reduced. It was not because his mother forgot to prepare, but because the family members were gradually increasing their understanding, acceptance, and tolerance towards Teck Yong. Love supersedes all boundaries, “death” could eventually be spoken about openly.

In 2020, we cannot forget the life lessons brought to us by the pandemic. Although bereavement care professionals witness many farewells in their daily work, when death visits their own family, these life practitioners like everyone else, experience a heavy heart. During a season in that year, with the confirmed cases continuing to rise daily, Teck Yong’s father unfortunately became one of the elderly high-risk infection cases. He was admitted to the hospital for isolation and fought against the virus with all his might.

“I felt incredibly helpless at that time. The hospital was overcrowded, and my father, through the phone, told me how much pain he was in, how difficult it was to breathe, and so on. I felt like there was nothing I could do, except calling the hospital or the nurses taking care of him, pleading with them to take extra care of my dad.”

Comforting family members is also like comforting oneself

“To be honest, I have served so many deceased individuals, but I am actually completely afraid to think about ‘death’ happening in my own family,” said Teck Yong solemnly.

That year, Teck Yong was also one of the frontline workers during the pandemic, facing the deceased due to COVID-19. He had to fulfil his duties and assist families in arranging funerals. To reassure the bereaved, he remembers using a professional tone to comfort them, saying, “It’s okay, everything will pass.” With these words, he seemed to be comforting his own heavy heart as well.

This life lesson is the life education that Teck Yong vividly experienced. Past estrangements with his family had created a significant void in his life. Therefore, he made a commitment not only to take care of himself but to also accompany his family to do things they wanted to do, without delay. He recognised the uncertainty of tomorrow and impermanence, unsure which would come first. ” From that time onwards, I became more proactive in sharing my life with them. Sometimes, if I come home later from work, I openly share what I’ve been doing with them, even showing them photos, especially when I’m engaging with students at seminars discussing funeral culture.”

It is worth mentioning that Chan Teck Yong is not only a bereavement care professional but also one of the promoters of Xiao En’s life education. He primarily focuses on studying the funeral rites of various Chinese dialect groups in Malaysia. In addition to applying his funeral knowledge in actual farewell ceremonies for clients, he also serves as an educator for cultural heritage. Whenever there are life education activities, he dedicates his extra time to practicing his lectures repeatedly, hoping to share his professional knowledge with more people. “In fact, my parents are very proud when they see the photos. They originally only hoped that I, their child, would not steal, not rob, not gamble, not do drugs, and that would bring them comfort. But they never expected that a child who didn’t like to read much could actually share and teach like a teacher during life education activities.”

I finally see my parents’ recognition

In each life education session, whether it’s high school students, university students, or working adults visiting the Xiao En Centre, if there is a sharing about funeral rites, Chan Teck Yong is always involved. With his own practical experience, you can sense a warm empathy in his sharing. “When you truly understand the stories behind funeral customs, you will discover that etiquette is not a constraint, but rather the wisdom of our ancestors from the perspective of caring for the deceased and the living. When traditional customs are practiced in this era, it is also a choice for the families, not a coercion, because ultimately a funeral is about fulfilling the wishes of the deceased and comforting the living.”

As a bereavement care professional, what is Teck Yong’s steadfast belief? He firmly answers, “For every funeral, I always make sure to reserve some time for the family and the deceased to have a final moment alone, encouraging them to take the opportunity to bid a proper farewell to their loved ones without any regrets.”

In 2024, Chan Teck Yong carries the weight of being the torchbearer for Xiao En’s “Life Practitioner” 2.0 initiative to promote life education, ultimately earning recognition from his superiors and team. In the presence of all his colleagues, he walked onto the stage under the spotlight to receive a 3D trophy with his likeness engraved on it. That night, he felt like he had returned to his childhood, sharing the joy with his parents holding this “outstanding achievement” award. “I never experienced being able to return home proudly with good grades from studying before, so I have never seen the look of recognition from my parents, but this time I saw it.”

Editor's Note:

On April 3, 2024, we had the privilege of interviewing Chan Teck Yong, as he shared the poignant tale of his father's battle with illness during the pandemic. When we inquired about the impact of this experience and witnessing numerous farewells, his response was immediate and profound. "Though it may sound like a cliché, seizing the moment is crucial. I've made a conscious effort to live without regrets, accompanying my parents on meaningful experiences like trips to Genting Highlands and sharing hearty meals together. This is how I honour and cherish them." On April 13, 2024, Teck Yong's father passed away from acute leukaemia at the age of 65. May this article serve as a tribute, transforming into cherished memories that eternally bind Teck Yong and his father, embodying the enduring bond and profound recognition they shared.