Updated: Oct 25
With autumn upon us, I think back to my summer adventure in China. My business partner, Mr. Wilson Tong, and I were invited by the Liji Academy in Shanghai to train its staff on funeral arrangements. It is the first international certification program that was organized by Pelican & Partners, Ltd (PNP) and the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), as well as the first one in the 25 years of our domestic client in the United States to introduce an international formal training to China. Being invited was truly an honor and an unforgettable experience to be part of this historical and meaningful event being introduced to the memorial industry in China and the world.
After being stateside for 3 years since being employed for 6 years as a funeral home CEO in Singapore, it felt good to finally be back in the international arena to share my knowledge and experience. It was nice to meet face-to-face again to converse with colleagues as well as meet new people to develop new friendships. Traveling may never be the same again after the pandemic resulting in fewer flights, additional travel obstacles, more time needed to get a travel permit, and much higher travel costs.
I still believe that international exchange needs a more personal touch. Online communication may be more effective with time and cost-savings, but it lacks a person-to-person connection and interaction. Even if face-to-face communication is more costly, people still prefer to meet with each other in person.
I have always believed in globalization and there is no better path to improve yourself and your organization than an international experience. Chinese wisdom says we should learn from those who are wiser to try to raise ourselves up to their same level（见贤思齐）. I cannot agree more because for those international elites, they are all good students of knowledge who are humble and committed to continuous improvement.
For international training, it is more difficult to introduce a new design or product. Training is about knowledge and service, and unfortunately, there are more objections. Western culture and Asian culture are different, and due to this difference, the "practicality" is weak and there is not much value for Asian business operators to listen to Western operators and vice versa. There was even a saying that only the Western community needs bereavement care. It is sad to hear these bias statements and misunderstandings. We may speak different languages and not understand each other, but we feel sad when there is a loss of family members and friends. Grief is global and this is the reason why our communities need our professional services.
When I was hired by my former employer in Singapore, many people thought I would not stay long because I did not speak Hokkein, Fujian dialects, Mandarin, or Malay. However, I stayed for more than 6 years and built countless friendships with people living there. I was hired to bring a different perspective to a profession that unfortunately was still not recognized as a true and honorable profession. It was my job to instill and educate the staff, the public and even the competitors that to be a real profession, we need to appreciate professionalism, global experience, education and training. To be open to design, technology, systems, modern management, services and branding, we need a true appreciation of culture and heritage. To respect intellectual property rights and knowledge. To incorporate corporate social responsibility in our daily operations and strategic plans. As a profession there are elements, we must pay attention to and uphold, starting with showing respect and appreciation for each other.
We started the week at Liji Academy in Shanghai to train their staff in funeral arrangements. My partner, Mr. Wilson Tong, has his own view of the future in the funeral profession and said, "We should understand the modern requirement of the industry. Yes, it is a very historical industry, but it needs to follow the pace of the world's development and meeting the expectations of modern society. " I believe this is true. Yes, the expectation of the funeral industry is no longer the same as 30 or 40 years ago. There are more "soft" elements to present such as design, art, eco-friendly, grief and bereavement services, professional services, science and technology, and the requirement of professional skills and qualifications. Together, all of these elements aim to create a memorable and meaningful farewell to the deceased, family, community, society, and even a nation or the global community. We memorial professionals have a great duty, and it is certainly not an easy job.
We concentrated on 5 major elements of the memorial arrangement: soft skills, personalization, green funeral practices, traditional death care teachings of Chinese rituals, and customs with a focus on what is commonly used in China – Emcee training.
The class consisted of 36 students with varying roles within the funeral home or cemetery. From entry-level to mid-level management. They were all ready and interested in learning and broadening their knowledge base.
The three-day workshop used a mixture of prerecorded training by NFDA’s Melissa Posey Loose and Mark Siu from Australia, together with local speakers from Beijing and Shanghai, with in-person training by Wilson Tong and me.
The students were shy at first but then warmed up and asked questions, volunteered, and participated willingly in role-playing. The final assignment was to be a 5-minute verbal presentation incorporating one of the designs from Melissa’s presentation. They needed to show how they could present such a concept to the families and the benefits it would have for both the company business and the families themselves.
These students not only met the criteria for the assignment but all 36 of them exceeded expectations by giving a PowerPoint presentation with well-thought-out ideas and creativity when the community or the laws of their communities may prohibit them from using outside venues such as a park or beach. They gave a summary of what they had learned over the last 3 days and demonstrated how they would incorporate their learning into everyday life at work and even at home.
Overall, the training was very well received. The students and faculty were pleased with the outcome and were left knowing that learning is ever evolving and that they could benefit from more training in the future.
Next, we went to Xuan Cheng of Anhui Province, which is 4 hours from Shanghai by high-speed train, where I had the good fortune to tour Ma Shan, a beautiful cemetery, funeral home, and crematory combination nestled in the foothills with lush landscapes. The general manager, Ms. Cheng Nana, took us on the tour along with a few of the staff, including one of the students from the training.
As embalming is still not commonly performed in China, they have halls with funeral packages that are designed to have the loved one in a casket in a showcase, very nicely and cleverly designed to mask possible odors and keep the family members at bay. They accomplish this by surrounding the casket, such as in this picture, with what would look like clouds and/or flowers, etc.
Interesting to note that the laws, much like the FTC in the United States, mandate that the cost of the products and services be clearly posted on the walls at the reception area for transparency.
During our time of sharing our knowledge, we met with a young female embalmer named Xiao Zhang. She was fascinated by what she learned concerning what certain products could do and the available training courses to enhance her skills. She explained that she loved art and had been to nursing school but sensed that she was called to help the deceased. She said that she felt for the families and wanted to make their experience better for them. At times when she was not able to give the families their loved ones back in the desired condition, it made her feel as if she had failed them all. We know that with the right embalming and product usage training that she will be even better at her vocation than she already is. Kudos to her and her general manager for encouraging Zhang’s growth and that of her other staff members.
On Thursday, we arrived in the beautiful coastal city of Qingdao. Beautiful skies, perfect temperatures, and a great location to bring back the China Funeral Exhibition. After a 5-year hiatus, the Chinese Funeral Association hosted its 9th China Funeral Exhibition. Held in the Qingdao International Convention Center, it started with 2 days of pre-exhibition conferences with topics ranging from eco-friendly funerals and landscapes to discussions on application scenarios of Digital Human and Metaverse Life Services. There were talks on end-of-life funeral care and the Development of the Funeral Industry under Chinese Modernization and in the New Era. The conference hall seated about 3,000 people and all were filled to capacity, standing room only. It would seem that post-COVID funeral professionals were hungry for change and thirsty for knowledge.
The opening day of the exhibition was celebrated with a full-military honor guard and military choir. Once the ribbon ceremony was over, 27,000 funeral professionals walked through the turnstiles within the first hour. While most of the attendees were from mainland China, there were visitors from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, Germany, Japan, Mongolia, and, of course, the USA.
I was asked by the Fu Shou Yuan Group to address the attendees with a summary of the changing trends in funeral service. These short presentations were all well attended followed by many questions. It allowed everyone to compare and understand that China was not the only country facing changes and challenges within the funeral sector.
Three halls were filled with cremation equipment, hearses (traditional and new), textiles, urns, caskets, headstones (from stone, granite, and marble), and AI – including a 3-dimensional life-like image of the deceased reflecting on his life’s legacy. There were also columbarium designers, and Chinese ritual and cultural products that are part of many of the funeral traditions. You could feel the energy vibrating through the whole convention. Everyone was excited and eager to see each other as well as what was new. The five-year hiatus certainly gave time to the suppliers to innovate and reinvent products, which was evident throughout the expo. You could also see COVID-19's influence in the innovation for contactless, or minimal-contact products.
Technology can be seen in almost every aspect of the industry’s products, with customized methods that could be controlled with a simple program, robots, digital applications, and/or motorized machinery doing the heavy lifting. Crematories can be operated with one press of a button. Automated carts lift the deceased from the dressing table to the casket, to the viewing area, and then transport it to the crematorium, placing the casket on the conveyor for cremation, then cooling off the remains and placing them in the receptacle for the ash collection ceremony.
Will all the new technology and use of robots make the need for human manpower obsolete? Or will it offer an opportunity for humans to be more creative and compassionate when serving bereaved families? I guess only time will tell. PNP-North America: People + Possibilities = Partnerships
Photo credits: Hanny Naibaho, Dong xu