As the coffin of 92-year-old Lim Kim Guan was carried out of a hearse, the puzzled crematorium officer asked undertaker Roland Tay: “Where is his family?”
“We are his family,” Tay replied with a wan smile, gesturing to himself and his wife at the funeral of the elderly man who died penniless and alone in a welfare home.
Two helpers and a Buddhist monk formed the rest of the funeral party on a hot and humid afternoon in May.
Tay, 63, is an undertaker with a charitable mission: looking after the destitute dead, from senior citizens abandoned by their families to foreign workers and executed criminals.
“I think what I do is very meaningful. I’m in the funeral line, so I can help the destitute and the poor people in the community,” Tay told AFP in an interview.
While most people’s idea of charity work involves financial and other forms of support for the the living, Tay makes sure that society’s forgotten will be taken care of after they die.
Typical funerals in Singapore are pricey affairs, costing around 5,000 Singapore dollars (3,500 US) for the embalming of the corpse, a coffin, a three-day wake and transport to the crematorium or graveyard.
“I help any religion, any nationality. As long as there was life, I will help them,” said Tay, who considers himself a free thinker.
The stout, clean-shaven man, who owns Direct Singapore Funeral Services, has laid to rest more than more than 100 dead people free of charge in the 20-odd years he has been in the business.
Identity cards belonging to his beneficiaries rest in a stack at a corner of his office desk.
“I’ve seen so many kinds of cases where they are very poor, destitute, people with financial problems, breadwinners who die and the children and the wife who are left behind are helpless… and I feel very sad,” he added.
Some were victims of grisly murders or suicides, making Tay a bit of a local celebrity.
One of the most famous cases was dubbed the “Kallang body parts murder” by the Singapore media in June 2005.
A 22-year-old Chinese woman, Liu Hong Mei, disappeared and her corpse was found chopped into seven pieces and discarded in five different places including the Kallang River.
Tay, who conducted Liu’s funeral, had to piece together her dismembered corpse, which proved difficult as a portion of one leg was missing and various parts were in different stages of decay.
“Me and my wife, we both went to see how we could make her beautiful and in one piece and dress her up,” he said, calling it the most heart-wrenching case he had ever handled.
Tay also handled the funeral of Nguyen Tuong Van, a Vietnamese Australian hanged in Singapore for drug trafficking in 2005.
“I do not bother about what his crime was. I only bother that his mother was here, and really had no money,” Tay said.
Tay’s philantrophy also involves counselling and fund-raising for the families left behind.
In one case, a Singaporean man committed suicide by jumping in front of a train because he was heavily in debt and could not pay for his sickly wife and children’s medical bills.
Tay organized a press conference which generated an outpouring of public sympathy, and within five days he raised 500,000 Singapore dollars.
The widow offered him 100,000 dollars in gratitude but he donated the sum to various charities instead.
“Heart is very important, when you do all this, it’s very meaningful and there’s karma for me,” said Tay, citing the Hindu concept of reaping what one sows.
The most unusual funeral carried out by Tay involved Ah Meng, a female Sumatran orang utan from the Singapore Zoo who in life had been the face of the city-state’s massive tourism industry.
Ah Meng’s remains are buried in a prominent part of the zoo overlooking a scenic man-made lake.
“Ah Meng is a Singapore icon,” Tay said. “Singapore is very proud of her.”