SINGAPORE: He was separated from his wife for 20 years and was childless. And he spent almost a decade in a home for the destitute before he was transferred to a nursing home in 2017.
When Mr Tan died of pneumonia in hospital recently, at the age of 74, it could have been yet another desolate ending in ageing Singapore.
But a man he never knew in life was there to ensure that the former tour bus driver had a friend in death.
As his corpse lay on the cold steel trolley in the mortuary, 80-year-old Lim Hang Chung walked in with a contemplative focus on the deceased, whose body would have otherwise gone unclaimed.
“Today, we’re taking you to the undertakers,” Mr Lim said in Mandarin, his voice piercing the solemn silence of the small room. “Then to Mandai for cremation. And then we’ll take your ashes … to be scattered in the sea.”
He bowed his head to the dead man, with the belief that his words did not fall on deaf ears. “I do this for my conscience – as (my) accountability to this person,” he explained to CNA Insider.
He was true to his word. Not only did he take the body to be cleaned, he also attended the funeral service and even tried to sing the Catholic hymns as part of arranging the last rites.
As the number of residents aged 65 or older who live alone rises, Mr Lim and the organisation he chairs, Cheng Hong Welfare Service Society, are doing their best to provide the low-income elderly with free funeral services.
By 2030, an estimated 83,000 elderly residents will be living alone, double the 41,200 residents in 2015. And Mr Lim feels most sorry for those with no family or who are estranged.
“If they’re worried that there’s no one helping them in their last rites, don’t you think it’s pitiful? Therefore if we help them to do it … they’d feel comforted,” he said.
FROM TCM TO MEMORIAL SERVICES
An electrical contractor by profession, he started Cheng Hong in 2004 with a different intention: To provide free traditional Chinese medicine services for the elderly. Five years passed before he saw the first sign that he could do much more.
An erhu player he knew at a temple was admitted to hospital after a fall, and Mr Lim visited him regularly. One day, the 81-year-old patient asked his junior for help in conducting his last rites.
“He held my hand tightly and said, ‘Chairman, you’re my only friend who comes and visits me.’ And also his grandson – there was no other visitor,” Mr Lim recounted.
"Not long after, he went home and fell down at home and passed away. I helped him conduct the last rites."
Within a year, a friend introduced him to a man whose 10-year-old son had died. “The father told me that at his son’s birth, the doctor said his child could live until 10 years old at most,” said Mr Lim.
“The father spent all his money on medical fees.”
The family was Christian, and he was a Buddhist, but that was no hindrance. He said: “I told him we don’t look at religion or race when we do charity.”
After that, he often read in the news about the elderly dying at home, and started thinking that he “has to do this work”.
He had to first look for funding and managed to pool together seed money from some of his friends and himself, amounting to S$35,000. In 2012, Cheng Hong’s Afterlife Memorial Service was born.
To spread the word, they went door to door with goody bags in the Chin Swee Road and Jalan Kukoh area, where there were many elderly residents.
“When they heard about the last rites, they took the goody bag, didn’t say anything and closed the door,” recalled Mr Lim. “There were some who heard us out.”
His solution to this taboo subject of death was to invite celebrities to sing at the residents’ Senior Activity Centre and chat with them. And that was how he got the end-of-life conversation started among the elderly.
“They were aware that they didn’t know who to look for when they pass away. So they said they wanted to do it (with Cheng Hong). So it’s different when it’s discussed openly,” he said.
DEAD ON CHINESE NEW YEAR’S EVE
He and his small team – just a handful of staff – have since seen some 190 people on their final journey. The cases have left an impression on them in various ways.
Just on the eve of this Chinese New Year, a Mr Cheong died at around 7.30pm, when families across Singapore were having their reunion dinner.
The 73-year-old bachelor had been living alone, however, in a one-room rental flat – at least for the last 15 years since his brother died, reckoned his social worker, who wanted to be known only as Ms Wee.
Mr Lim’s team started on his funeral arrangements as soon as they could – four days later.
As she watched the body being washed at the undertaker parlour, Cheng Hong social and welfare executive Jas Tan said: “I feel sad – came too late.”
Since his cancer diagnosis in November, she and Ms Wee had been visiting the Cheng Hong member and buying food for him.
“He wanted to eat fried Hokkien mee. We bought Hokkien mee for him … every day,” she said. “He (also) wanted a haircut, but too late.”
Amid the gloomy setting, something stood out from the desaturated hues: A lemon yellow jacket.
This is Uncle’s favourite jacket,” explained Ms Tan, 40, who had taken it from his home when she learnt of his death. “Every time he went out, he’d wear this yellow jacket because he was scared of the cold.”
Something else – or someone – stood out too: 16-year-old Michael Corbes Yahzet, the deceased’s neighbour and the only person with him when he died.
The heavily built student was there when the body was collected, and Mr Lim encouraged him to say a few words too. Head bowed, voice muffled, a “rest in peace” could barely be heard before he broke into tears.
Later, a more composed Michael said of the “very lonely guy” he knew for 10 years: “I’d come back from school (and) always see him outside the house, so I’d always talk to him.
“He’d (tell) me not to bully others. He taught me good things.”
Mr Cheong had an impact on his social worker too. His funeral was the only one Ms Wee has attended in the course of her work.
“For me, work is work. But with certain seniors, the feeling is different. Maybe (attending his funeral) is the way (for me to) show him he isn’t alone,” she said.
However lonely a life some seniors had led, Mr Lim is motivated to ensure that their death is different. “A person dying without any family is the most heart-breaking thing,” he said.
Watch: He arranges funerals for the lonely dead (8:10)
For those who are estranged, he tries to convince them to see the deceased for the last time – even if it is just at the very end, at the crematorium.
“This person is gone away. The past is past. It’s best if you see him for the last journey,” is what he would often say. And he cannot think of any case where all the relatives still refused.
To stave off solitude, his welfare society does not just wait until death strikes. It reaches out to the elderly through a befriending service.
While this began as part of the Afterlife Memorial Service, more effort has been put into it since 2014, with shopping activities, trips to places such as Gardens by the Bay and Chinese New Year visits.
The Cheng Hong team also visit those who fall ill and generally any of the members – more than 400 now – who say they need company.
For example, for over two years, Mr Lim has been visiting Mr Tan Whee Suan fortnightly in his nursing home.
It is a companionship the 82-year-old appreciates, with his older brother and a social worker his only other regular visitors.
“Because those here are mostly sick people – very hard to communicate. So you feel lonely,” said Mr Tan. “Sometimes you feel very frustrated.”
His daily routine said it all: “After breakfast, wait for shower. Queue up for shower. After shower, queue up for medicine … After that, wait for lunch … After lunch, nothing to do, either sleep or (watch) TV. That’s all.”
A friend had introduced him to Cheng Hong – which can be found on the Giving.sg portal – and now he can also draw comfort from knowing that his final journey will be done as he wishes.
“Mr Lim asked me what my religion was (and) what funeral I wanted. So I said, ‘I’m a Buddhist. I want (it) … as simple as possible,’” he recounted.
"I hope my brother will be there. And if possible, if Mr Lim is free, he can be there."
Mr Lim often shares his number with members, and they do call him when they need help – like the time a woman in her 70s said she wanted to “jump in the sea” because she thought her son had abandoned her.
“I told her, ‘Aunty … I’m in hospital for my eye surgery. After I’m discharged today, I’ll go and visit you,” he recounted. And so he did the next day.
SHARING HIS VISION
On his part, he can count on three to four casket companies to help him – and especially Reliant Funeral Services, a funeral parlour.
It charges Cheng Hong reasonable fees, which its funeral director Goh Siew Leh described as “half profit and half helping”.
But beyond cost – which Mr Lim said ranges between S$1,000 to S$2,000 typically, depending on the person’s requests – she shares his vision: To treat every person with dignity in death.
The company provides a funeral outfit if needed, and much more. For Mr Cheong, there were paper replicas of objects that had meaning for him, including that of an iPad, as he loved watching boxing matches on his tablet.
For Mr Tan the Catholic, Mdm Goh bought flowers to be placed in his coffin during his funeral service, which was attended by a trio from Cheng Hong.
“Normally, we’d pick flowers that are fresh and beautiful,” she said, and selected the brightest ones – magenta orchids and coral carnations – from a flower shop.
On why Reliant is willing to help, she added: “I see it as a giving back to society. In this business, we earn the money of others, and we have to return it to some people in need.”
She also cited the “soft-hearted” Mr Lim for giving money to the elderly out of his own pocket, which CNA Insider observed too.
The semi-retiree, whose business partner “manages all the work” at their electrical construction company, said those who lived in hardship in the past “must understand those who are going through hardship now”.
“Therefore, if I think I can give these people a little, I have a great sense of satisfaction.”
He has had his share of ups and downs. He has no sight in one eye “because for decades, there’ve been no nerves there any more”. More recently, he needed surgery to remove a tumour in his prostate.
At this point, however, death does not hold any fear for him. “If you do good deeds, the heavens are looking. They’ll arrange. That’s why I don’t feel afraid of dying,” he said.
“After doing this (charity work), I feel I have a sense of security.”
The voluntary chairman is focused instead on nurturing younger people to do last rites for the needy elderly. And although he has planned for his deputy to take over his position, he has no intention of walking away.
“When I first started doing this, I’d cry,” he said of the emotional investment he has made in the many cases. “I don’t feel so sad now, but I still feel empathy.”