Ogden Chan puts his best into making sure bereaved families are taken care of but admits being detached is a necessary part of the job
January was a busy month for undertaker Ogden Chan Yan. “It’s peak season for us because more people are dying due to the fickle weather, and many families don’t want to wait until after the Lunar New Year to bury their dead,” the 36-year-old says.
Rows of cardboard boxes containing the ashes of his clients’ loved ones line the shelves of Chan’s shop in Hung Hom. His clients have left the ashes for safekeeping until their deceased are assigned columbarium niches. Chan reckons there are almost 200 of these boxes.
“It’s the typical Hongkonger’s fate: the living can’t afford homes, and the dead can’t find final resting places.”
It has been seven years since Chan joined the industry as an apprentice. Although he applied for the apprenticeship “out of curiosity”, his interest in the funeral sector began in his early teens.
“I wanted to be a mortuary makeup artist because I was under the impression that people in the funeral business made a decent living because there’s always going to be a demand for the service, and I liked how it was something of a craft.”
But that initial perception was somewhat misguided. Chan says that his business has only recently become profitable. Before, he was barely getting by. He now oversees everything from preparing documents and booking cremation services to planning religious ceremonies. As a nod to his childhood dream, he also acts as a makeup artist for his clients’ loved ones.
“I talk to the corpses when I put makeup on them because I believe that our consciousness remains even after we die.”
After a while, he adds: “That said, I’ve never seen a ghost.”
Chan says he has been fearless all his life, even as a child, when he saw a corpse for the first time lying in a construction site in mainland China. The second time he saw a corpse was before he joined the industry, when he was volunteering for a service for inmates. The corpse was already decomposing.
“What impressed me was not the appearance of the corpse – which looked like a zombie out of a video game – but the smell.”
The smell of decay was something Chan had to get used to as soon as he became an undertaker’s apprentice, as was staying detached from clients and their grief.
“In time, I adopted a somewhat dispassionate view of death. As a service provider, I get satisfaction from organising a successful service. After all, it’s the last ceremony a person ever has on this Earth.”
But when Chan presided over his father’s funeral service five years ago, things got personal.
“While making the arrangements, I kept thinking of the times I’d spent with my father. What helped with my grieving process was the fact that I knew exactly what had to be done after his death.”
Chan says he is happy to see that Hongkongers have become more willing to explore and discuss issues related to death, but believes education about death and dying should start young.
“I’ve seen four or five year-olds bawling at their parents’ funerals. They’re old enough to learn the meaning of life and death.”
At that, Chan offers his take on life: “Don’t waste time. Even if you’re given 80 years to live, it’s still not enough. Do as much as you can while you’re around, so when you’re on your deathbed looking back on your life, you can think about all the marvellous things you’ve done.”
So, what is on Chan’s bucket list?
“I want to get a bachelor’s degree. And, like every other Hongkonger, I want to be able to afford my own home.”
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