Sat, Jul 19, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Modernizing the business of death

In Taiwan not so long ago it was taboo to talk about death and the funeral business was controlled by gangsters. No more ...

By Vico Lee  /  STAFF REPORTER

The funeral of the mother of the singer Yu Tian, in Neihu, Taipei, earlier this year.

PHOTO COURTESY OF WON ANN INTERNATIONAL

When Wang Chi-hong (王智弘) was hired by Won Ann Funeral Parlor in Taipei 10 years ago, the only qualification he had for the job was not being scared of corpses. Though he was at ease with dead bodies, he dared not give acquaintances his name card. People referred to him and his seven colleagues only as "those from the funeral parlor," while the traditional euphemism "Tou-kong-ah," (土公仔) or "those who deal with the earth," was applied to Wang's central and southern Taiwan counterparts.

A new recruit in the small family business, Wang had to do everything from transporting, cleaning and embalming corpses, to acting as announcer in ceremonies, many of which were held under a temporary tarpaulin canopy in front of the recently deceased's house.

Wang is a manager at the parlor now, which was renamed Won Ann International Funeral Company (萬安生命事業機構) four years ago. The parlor has 130 morticians at 18 branches island-wide. Wang said he was proud of his profession and being a "li-yi-shih," (禮儀師) or "instructor of the proprieties."

In order to recruit a younger generation of workers, Won Ann has teamed up with Huafan University for a "Funeral Direction Specialist Course," (殯葬業管理保證班) which is slated to start next week in Taichung. After a preliminary selection and interview, the company will choose 30 of the candidates -- based on their manners and college degrees -- to take the 136-hour, one-month course. After which they will be allowed to serve their apprenticeship in the company as an assistant mortician. They will receive a starting salary of NT$30,000, higher than the average college graduate's salary of NT$25,400.

"A mortician is entitled to a reasonably good salary, like any other profession," said Wu Tsi-huei (吳賜輝), vice chairman of the company.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, around 120,000 Taiwanese die each year. Funeral facilities, crematoriums and cemeteries for these recently departed people occupy around 4km2 of land annually. A family spends an average NT$400,000 on their loved one's funeral and burial, which usually includes professional mourners, a band, paper houses, Taoist wizards, as well as flowers, a coffin, and sometimes entertainment. The funeral industry makes NT$50 billion a year, according to the interior ministry, and these figures have attracted Service Corporation International, one of the biggest funeral service providers in the US, which has been looking at the Taiwan funeral industry since 1994.

The industry used to be a no man's land, as far as legislation was concerned. The only related law was the Grave Establishment and Management Regulations (墳墓設置管理條例), enacted in 1883, that regulated only the making of graves, leaving out all the other parts of the funeral process. Sometimes, gangster-run funeral parlors took possession of dead bodies before forcing their family to pay outrageous sums. Gang fights over corpses used to be a common occurrence. For fear of trouble, most people kept quiet about such dealings.

The new Funeral Industry Management Regulations (殯葬管理條例), which went into effect at the beginning of this month, are the first laws for over a century that deal with the business of death. They prohibit those with a criminal record from running funeral parlors and require all companies to publicize their prices. The new regulations also outlaw asking for payment for bodies taken without family consent. All aspiring morticians have to pass a national exam to receive a mortician's license.

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