SINGAPORE: The identification of four new sites for funeral parlours has been welcomed by industry players, although they think that some of the locations could present challenges for the bereaved.
The new sites come as a welcome boost at a time when options are lacking amid growing demand, one funeral parlour said, but the fact that three of them will be within industrial estates could mean they might not be entirely accessible by public transport.
"Funeral infrastructure is no different from a police station, hospital, fire station – it is part of the community infrastructure," Mount Vernon Sanctuary founder Ang Ziqian told Channel NewsAsia.
"Having easily accessible and convenient locations for funeral parlours encourages the community to come together to support any grieving family."
The National Environment Agency (NEA) announced on Tuesday (Jan 8) that four new funeral parlour sites will be progressively launched for development over the next decade to meet an expected increase in demand.
Three of the sites will be located at Woodlands Industrial Park E8, an industrial area along Bukit Batok Street 23, and at Ang Mo Kio Street 63, close to metal polishing and automotive spare parts factories.
The fourth site will be at Mandai Road near the existing Mandai Crematorium and Columbarium.
"It’s not very easy for grieving families, relatives and friends to get to the funeral home in any industrial park, as you have to drive or walk through loud noises, metal works, wrecked cars and huge trash bins," Mr Ziqian said.
“To have already lost a loved one and to have to go through an area that is undignified is not something that I want to wish upon any grieving family.
"Industrial parks are good for manufacturing, but not suitable for the service profession, especially the funeral profession that handles families in heavy emotional grief."
Nonetheless, most existing funeral parlours are located within industrial estates in Sin Ming, Ubi, Geylang Bahru and Toa Payoh. Singapore Casket has 12 halls in its building at Lavender Street.
President of the Association of Funeral Directors Ang Zi Sheng said it would be "excellent" if funeral parlours could be located within communities. "We can be as creative as possible, and I believe with a good design and business model, that can happen," he added.
Nevertheless, Mr Ziqian recognises that authorities are in a tight spot because they have to address competing needs when delegating land use. Furthermore, residents might not like the idea of having a funeral service area near, or under, their block.
"Residents who object to funeral service halls next to their residences say it creates noise, impacts on their public space and all that. But isn’t it the same as it is now where every void deck in every HDB apartment block is used for funeral wakes?" he asked.
"With a purpose-built, aesthetically designed funeral service hall, it can address all these issues and actually can make funerals more dignified."
The authorities have also done a good job making the new sites purpose-built, Mr Zi Sheng said, hoping that this would make way for different funeral services - like embalming, funeral halls and casket shops - to be put together.
"This will fulfil existing needs of funeral companies and at the same time offer a more holistic range of services to the public," he added.
LEASE AN ISSUE
Beyond the issue of location, industry players also hope the new sites can be leased out for a longer term.
Those currently operating in the industrial parks have to renew their lease every three years, they said, adding that this creates uncertainty when it comes to upgrading facilities.
"One cannot expect that any place will stay for long because it’s on three years, and there might be relocation plans," Mr Zi Sheng said.
"If the lease is longer, funeral companies can recoup their capital expenditure on infrastructure. And I think infrastructure is very important to create a good environment for bereaved families to grieve."
Mr Ziqian hopes the new sites would come with at least a 60-year lease, pointing out that the cost of building something from scratch would take some time to recoup.
"There is only so much renovation you can do on a three-year lease," he added. "This doesn't help the profession to grow."
As far as the profession is concerned, the signs are that it's an industry with growing demand.
NEA said resident deaths are expected to rise to around 40,000 by 2040. There were 20,905 deaths registered in Singapore in 2017.
Funeral parlours are also gaining popularity, industry players said, pointing out that some prefer the privacy, while smaller families might not have enough members to keep vigil during longer wakes.
"Longer wake periods also help family members who travel or work overseas to fly back and attend the wake," Mr Ziqian said. "This is very important for closure."
Mr Ziqian, who is also deputy chairman of the Ang Chin Moh Group that manages Mount Vernon Sanctuary, added that it has long prepared for this increase in demand by bringing in more products and services, and improving job training and benefits to attract more talent.
The group manages a host of companies that offer various after-death services, including repatriations, funerals for different religions and even creating diamonds from cremated remains.
Mr Zi Sheng said funeral companies could invest in more technology that might be common overseas, like an automated storage system for urns found in Japan.
"When people come to pay respects, they’ll scan in a card or their fingerprint and the system brings that urn out to the front," he said. "Things like this will help in terms of storage.
"Whether or not the public is receptive, I think time will tell."
LACK OF PARLOURS
While companies are doing all they can to meet the demand, there have been no new funeral parlour sites since 2009, when the Mount Vernon Park site was tendered out to increase capacity.
However, the two funeral parlours operating there - Mount Vernon Sanctuary and Singapore Casket - moved out last September to make way for the development of the Bidadari housing estate.
"So when those were removed, the situation worsened because the demand is always rising but the supply suddenly drops," Mr Ziqian said.
It is no surprise then that members of the Funeral Directors Association have shown "a lot of interest" in the new sites, Mr Zi Sheng said.
In response to queries from Channel NewsAsia, NEA said the Woodlands Industrial Park E8 site will be the first to be launched for development in the second half of 2019, adding that each site should be operational roughly four years after its launch.
"The Government will tender out the four sites to the private sector to build and operate the funeral parlours," it added.
"For the tender process, the Government will ensure safeguards are in place to minimise disamenities affecting nearby stakeholders, and will implement this through the sales conditions and design review process."
The former Mount Vernon site will also be replaced by a new funeral parlour complex that will be integrated within the Bidadari estate. This is expected to be ready in 2024.
While Mr Ziqian said authorities "did the right thing" to spread the four new sites across different parts of Singapore to serve different residents, he can't say for now if he would launch a bid.
"If it is within the community and accessible, I think the answer is a yes," he stated. "But if it’s in the industrial parks, I may want to study the ease of approach with public transport and the conditions in the industrial park."