This Polytechnic Student Is A Funeral Director, Juggles Study & Work With 24/7 On-Call Duties

Funeral Director Anil Shah Started Working In the Industry When He Was 17

In a largely-hidden industrial corner of Geylang Bahru is a row of funeral service businesses. Every day, these businesses handle the last rites of people who have passed on.

Catering to Singaporeans of every major faith and ethnicity, these services are usually on-call 24 hours a day.

Anil Shah is a funeral director and works at the Singapore Indian Casket, alongside his own funeral services company catering to the Christian and Catholic communities in Singapore.

But what marks him out from the other directors, who range from their mid-twenties to 40s and 50s, is that Anil is just 20 this year. He’s likely one of, if not the youngest, funeral directors in the industry.

Not just that — Anil is also pursuing a diploma in Digital Media & Communications from Singapore Polytechnic at the same time.

Being 24 hours on call and constantly facing an emotional toll from his job, Anil finds it necessary to disengage from the work at times. As such, he shared with MS News that he’s lucky for his family’s and team’s support.

Daily life of a funeral director

Deaths can happen at literally any hour of the day. As Anil provides 24-hour services, he has to be on call at any time.

Within 45 minutes of the call, he’ll head down to either the hospital or home to collect the deceased.

Then, he’ll get a certificate from a doctor stating the person has passed on before bringing the body for embalming, showering, and dressing up for the funeral.

While all of this is happening, Anil and his team will also coordinate various funeral logistics, such as flowers and engaging the relevant religious representative for the funeral.

As a funeral director, Anil shares that he is the main point of contact with the bereaved family.

He’s the one who answers the family’s various questions, especially when it comes to the various funeral rites and rituals.

“I have to be… more tactful (when talking to the family) and handle any questions,” Anil said. After all, letting them understand why each ritual is done is important in helping the family as they grieve.

He is often there to support the family emotionally and ensure that everything is taken care of. For the poor and those without kin of their own, Anil will even provide funeral services pro-bono.

Dealing with death as a funeral director every day takes its toll

Anil, who is Christian, set up his own company with the auspices of the Singapore Indian Casket to cater to his own Catholic and Christian community.

Besides these, he also has a company that provides funeral services for Buddhists and Taoists.

“I don’t want to be a one-stop company — I want some division, so it’s easier for the workers (to handle each job).” Regardless, he welcomes members of every major faith.

It’s a lot to handle for anyone, let alone a 20-year-old. When the emotional toll of dealing with death every day becomes too much, Anil will take a break to recharge while his co-workers pick up the slack.

I’ll leave my phone with my mum and just, go to Kuala Lumpur or something.

Even during the MS News interview, Anil constantly received calls and messages. There’s always something to do, so complete disengagement is required.

If that’s not possible, Anil finds ways to pass the time by bowling, prawning, or even praying in church. Of course, any pockets of free time are spent sleeping as well.

As you’d expect from a job requiring you to be on call all the time, Anil tries to get as much sleep as possible when things are quieter.

Shockingly, there have been weeks where he’d get an average of two to three hours of sleep a night. On some days, none at all.

Dealing with a suicide case on his first day

Anil remembers the first day he started his job vividly. On 2 Jan 2019, he was immediately thrown into the deep end when he had to attend to a case of a 14-year-old who took her own life.

Because she was Catholic, Anil’s supervisor put him in charge as he was more familiar with the rituals involved. It was certainly a lot to take in for a 17-year-old, as someone who had no experience.

“She was my little sister’s age, so it hit especially hard,” Anil recounted. It could have easily happened to her, which made it all the more meaningful that this was his first assignment.

One misconception about Anil, especially from his poly classmates, is that his family is involved in the funeral services industry.

However, he says it’s not the case, and he’s the only one in the family who joined the industry. Regardless, Anil shares that they’ve been highly supportive from the start, even driving him to work when he was starting out.

Anil has even managed to convince his sceptical extended family by handling his own family’s funerals.

Grateful for support at work

While waiting for his polytechnic posting in Jan 2019, Anil was offered an internship with the Singapore Indian Casket.

Unlike many other people his age, partying or hanging out with friends is a luxury Anil can’t afford. Most of his time is spent with his co-workers, many of whom are much older than he is.

He’s grateful that many of them have taken him under their wing and guided him through this exceptional industry.

Though a few “haters” dislike newcomers like himself and spread rumours about him behind his back, Anil takes it all in stride.

“I don’t let (the haters) bother me. I just stick to the nice ones,” he said.

Believes furthering education has helped his work

Admittedly, juggling both school and work has been difficult, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic when deaths increased rapidly.

For example, he failed two modules and had to repeat them the following year, delaying his graduation.

However, the silver lining is that he’s only taking one module this semester, freeing up his week so he can work.

But Anil still believes in the need to get his papers, so he chose to study Digital Media to market his businesses better online.

“The course has taught me a lot about design, which saves costs,” Anil added.

Though furthering his education will take up time that is probably spent working, he has plans to get a funeral directing diploma in New Zealand — though perhaps not so soon.

Not an easy job, but highly fulfilling

Being a funeral director sounds tempting for anyone who dislikes the routine of a 9-5 job. But it’s not just the irregular hours that may put someone off. There’s also a lot of travelling involved – Anil clocks about 200km a week driving – and the job combines physical and managerial work.

As such, he would not recommend doing it for the money, even though he gets paid ‘okay’.

Especially with his pro-bono work, it’s about providing a service, and the greatest joy for Anil is when a family compliments him for a job well done.

Some even tell him that their loved one would be happy with how he helped them pass on to the afterlife.

Ultimately, Anil wants families, especially more conservative and superstitious ones, to know that death is an occasion to celebrate one’s life, not the gloomy affair it is often regarded as.

As Anil put it,

Not everyone needs a doctor, but everyone needs a funeral.

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