Long a sensitive subject, death and dying is taking on a whole new look.
BY: Eleanor Yap
Death and dying have often been taboo subjects of discussion and therefore rarely talked about here in Singapore. Philanthropic house, Lien Foundation and St Joseph’s Home and Hospice has changed this and is bringing death and dying to the forefront with its new project called Happy Coffins. Three residents at the hospice have put in their pre-departure wishes of how their final resting places should be.
Said one of those residents, 79-year-old Elsie Chua (above, in the middle), “I am not afraid to talk about my eventual departure. It is very meaningful to be able to shape the design of my coffin and see it before I die.” She smiled and said, “I want to have a matching kebaya (a traditional Straits Chinese garment for women).” She has a love for flowers – roses, lilies and orchids, and appreciates the intricate and detailed embroidery and revels in the rich colours and imagery of her Peranakan culture.
The other two residents who have received their own customised coffins created by FARM, a Singapore arts creative society, include Kitty Fogh, 90, and Magdalene Khoo, 70 (pictured above, Khoo is the one on the far left). Fogh who is born of Danish and Ceylonese parents, speaks fondly of her teaching days, recounting her various students and assistants (her coffin is below), while Khoo, who was born with polio, loves roses in all shades and colours (her coffin is pictured far below). To her, they represent happiness and bliss, and remind her of the good times she had in the French countryside. She also said she would like to be in a simple white dress when she passes on. In addition, a multi-disciplinary artist was commissioned to render his interpretation.
The Happy Coffins project is all part of the Foundation’s Life Before Death campaign that seeks to get people thinking and talking about death and dying, and to highlight the urgent need to better care for the dying. Said the Foundation’s CEO Lee Poh Wah: “The name ‘Happy Coffins’ may be like an oxymoron, but its very antithesis captures what we seek to do. We are turning the coffin from a supreme negative symbol of death into a creative canvas for reflection and inspiration, and the positive celebration of life.”
He added why this subject matter has remained sensitive: “Try broaching to your parents about what they want and do not want at their end-of-life (or touch wood, imagine the need to convey bad news) and you will appreciate the difficulty. We are not born knowing how to die, or conditioned to have such conversations in our death-phobic and illiterate society. Like any phobia, I think the fears about death and dying can be alleviated when we have knowledge, when we can talk more openly about it, when we are prepared, and when we have the power to make it a better experience for ourselves and loved ones. We have got to ‘die-logue’ more to desensitise the topic, and I think such conversations are really healthy.”
Added Sister Geraldine Tan, administrator at St Joseph’s Home and Hospice: “This project though seemingly about death and dying, is really life-giving. It has created a non-threatening platform for our residents to share their lives and talk about their pre-departure wishes and hopes.”
Lee said, “By subverting the conventional notion of death, we hope to liberalise mindsets and spark die-logues that do not need to be full of woe, but are filled with joy, laughter and good memories.”
The Foundation also invited artists from the global creative community of Eyeka to create the best Happy Coffins – whether for themselves, a loved one, or an inspiring person. A record of 733 entries came from 37 countries for this international coffin design competition (view the designs on the Happy Coffins website below). More than 75 percent of the participants produced designs for their own coffins. Suggested Lee, “If you are a designer, you can do one ‘final’ gift for your grandparent/loved ones if they are game. It’s basically vinyl stickers pasted on plain white coffin.”
He enthused: “We have designer clothes and chocolates, so why not designer coffins that uniquely reflect our lives, personalities and dreams. The individual life story behind each personalised coffin will be a poignant talking point at funerals.”
Asked about the next step in the Happy Coffins project, he said that there are no immediate plans to introduce this initiative to other homes and hospices. “The St Joseph’s Home and Hospice is on auto-pilot and moving forward, they can do it for their residents who are interested.”
There was a first-ever large-scale survey on death and attitudes to dying which polled 800 people aged 25 and 59. The street surveys were conducted in October 2008 and January 2009.A matter of life & death
Here are some of the key findings:
• About 60 percent polled say they are comfortable talking about their own death. Roughly the same proportion also say they are uncomfortable discussing death with the terminally-ill.
• Younger people are more comfortable talking about their own deaths than older people (40 to 59 years). The latter are more comfortable talking to the terminally-ill.
• The more educated a person is, the more comfortable he is talking about death.
• Major ethnic groups (Chinese, Malays, Indians) are less comfortable talking about death than minority races like Caucasians.
• Singles are more comfortable with talking about their own death, while the widowed are least comfortable.
• Top three wishes about dying – 72 percent: To be free of pain; 71 percent: To be surrounded by people I love; and 68 percent: To be conscious and able to communicate.
• Top three fears about dying: Being a burden to family and friends, followed by medical costs and pain.
• Top regret at death – Not spending enough time with loved ones.
• Pre-death arrangements – 25 percent: Told someone about preference for burial, cremation or having ashes scattered in the sea; 20 percent: Drawn up a Will; and 15 percent: Made arrangements for funeral.
• What would you do if you have only six months to live?
1. Spend time with loved ones
3. Live life to the fullest
5. Stop working
6. Indulge in material/physical pleasures – food, drink, clubbing or sex
7. Live life as usual
8. Be spiritual, pray, become a monk, read the bible
9. Stay at home
10. Spend all money/give back to society – donate to charity, do volunteer work
** The information above came from The Straits Times’ Saturday Special Report and Lien Foundation magazine with permission.