Planning funerals and sowing hope
A Christian funeral director in Hong Kong bucks Chinese customs by offering ceremonies in churches
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Ka Yeung Wong got out of a cab at the public mortuary in the neighborhood of Kwai Chung shortly before 9 a.m. one overcast Friday in August. The funeral director joined his employee who had arrived in the black hearse. After handing over paperwork to the hearse staff, they waited for their clients who would collect the body for a 10:30 a.m. funeral.
Wong estimated that he’s organized around 1,000 funerals since he co-founded White Lily in 2013 with his business partner, Sze Yuen Ng, the pastoral director. Originally an engineer, Wong managed factories and an electronics brand but felt unfulfilled at work. After years of prayer, he said, “God gave me a burden in one of the darkest places in Hong Kong to serve, which is at the time of death.”
Funerals in Hong Kong are commonly Taoist, and most take place at multistory funeral parlors whose exteriors resemble industrial buildings. On any given floor, priests chant loudly in one room as incense smoke wafts in another. Families in white garb mourn among white flower wreaths. Paper offerings in the shape of luxury cars and yachts occupy the hall before being burnt in the belief the dead will receive them in the afterlife.
In contrast, the funerals Wong offers are Christian or nonreligious, and almost all take place inside a church. The mission is to evangelize and bring people into the church, Wong said. For some funeral attendees, it is the first time they step inside a church or hear a sermon. Confronting death also prompts people to ask the bigger questions on the purpose of life.
Spotting his clients outside the mortuary, Wong rushed to greet the wife and elder sister of the middle-aged man who had died a few weeks ago from a heart problem. Wong is aware that body collection is a jarring process for families, so he makes sure a familiar face from his company accompanies them. Speaking gently, Wong warned, “Sometimes the mouth might be open.” It turned out the man’s unembalmed body was in worse condition than he had expected, but he assured them there was still hope with makeup. Two other families entered the body identification area in silence and came out crying.
While Wong supervised the makeup process and the dressing of the body with the outfit and ring the wife had brought, he also trained his employee, who was new to the mortuary aspect of the job. The conventional funeral industry in Hong Kong is a closed community that people enter through connections and apprenticeship, Wong said. As an outsider, he had to figure things out on his own.
As his clients waited—in tears, silence, and prayer—the sister of the deceased told me it was good to have Wong’s support so she could focus on taking care of her mother, who was distraught over her son’s sudden death. For instance, while sitting in the hearse on the way to the church in Tsim Sha Tsui, she fretted she would be too emotional to deliver the eulogy at the funeral. Wong assured her it would be OK: The ceremony wasn’t about the speech.
Dealing so much with death, Wong admits he struggles with the tension of becoming desensitized while still needing to remain compassionate for his clients. He is also more aware than most that anyone can die tomorrow: Going from handling a funeral for a child to returning home to his young son is not easy. “I dreamed about my son dying every night for a month,” he said. Seeking Christian counseling has helped him process all the deaths he encounters.
Wong has also faced pushback because of the taboo of death in Chinese culture. A landlord denied him rental after finding out his occupation. Jobseekers have turned down his company’s offers after their parents disapproved of their career choice. Some churches have refused funerals with a dead body on the premise out of fear, Wong said.
Inside the Victorian-Gothic church in Tsim Sha Tsui, Wong darted around to ensure the funeral proceeded smoothly. Flanked by white flowers, 50 or so attendees wearing black sang “Amazing Grace” accompanied by a flutist and a pianist as a photo slideshow of the deceased played. Ng officiated the ceremony and delivered the sermon.
Afterward, Ng and the guests boarded a bus to a crematorium in Diamond Hill. Due to land scarcity in the city, nearly 90 percent of the dead are cremated.
While this funeral lasted under an hour, other funerals can be much more complicated. One time Wong worked frantically to keep the many mistresses of the deceased and his brother, who was arranging the ceremony, from running into each other.
Another time, an elderly woman called from Australia to plan the funeral for her sister, who at the time was still healthily living in Hong Kong. When the sister eventually died, Wong learned the woman who contacted him had already passed away as well: She was dying at the time of the call, and arranging her sister’s funeral was her way of trying to take care of her before her own death.
While he spends his days planning others’ funerals, Wong has not planned his own. “It’s not important,” he said. “Funerals are for the living. It’s not for the dead from a Christian standpoint.”
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