The Unseen Life Behind Death: Work, Sociality, and Spirituality
Death – a word associated with ominous, sinister feelings; a morbid event people tend to be evasive about. Death has been coined a taboo subject by anthropologists as early as foraging societies existed. For cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (1997), humans have a psychological denial of death that functions to keep us going in life normally by suppressing an awareness of our mortality. Whereas, death scholar Tony Walter (1991) posits that the debate on whether death is taboo is endless and inconclusive, that one’s stance varies on their own experiences with bereavement. For example, the discourse of death taboo can be shaped by professional classes who encounter death more intimately: the nature of their job requires them to be more sensitive towards death and so this prevents them from openly talking about it. In Singapore, on top of our strongly conservative culture, Asian culture has an unspoken consensus to avoid topics of death arising from superstitions and beliefs. In Chinese culture, discussing death is likened to “inviting death” upon oneself (Yick and Gupta 2002). This buries the discourse around death, let alone the consideration of a vocation closely related to death. This perceived taboo on death could also be argued to have negatively shaped commonplace views on death-related work but, as we reveal later, such is not the case for deathcare workers themselves.
In this photo essay, we seek to explore how deathcare workers perceive their work in light of the mainstream position towards death.
Introducing Mr Ajet, a carefree and jovial individual who works with Muslim burials in Choa Chu Kang Cemetery. We first met him at a flower shop near the cemetery – he had no qualms sharing stories of his work at the cemetery after learning about our research project. Prompted by his openness, we subsequently requested to shadow him on a second trip, where we obtained an in-depth insight into his average work day.
Starting his day at 8.30AM, Mr Ajet heads to the cemetery office to register for a burial plot, and collect a burial permit for the casket company he works at – except he calls it a “boarding pass” in a casual remark. Perhaps this euphemism was intended as humour, a coping mechanism for deathcare workers to distance themselves from their emotionally-intense work (Thompson 2001). It’s a long wait, he mentions, as the cemetery office is a government-managed bureaucracy after all.
The next part of his job brings us here, to the plots that lie vacant, waiting for the deceased to be returned to the soil. A belief echoed within Islamic teachings that upon death, Muslims like Mr Ajet would return to their creator in the Afterlife (Quran 5:105, 6:60, 31:15, etc.). Here, Mr Ajet hands over the boarding pass to the NEA officer overseeing these plots on behalf of the newly deceased before they are lowered into their final resting places. In some ways, this is telling of his feelings towards his job; how this process is not unlike a customs officer checking your ticket before you fly – rather, a transition to the next destination. In a sense, it is to see death not as the end of one’s life but instead, the junction at which one continues on to the next phase. Observing the tractor at rest beside the heaps of soil that line the side of these neatly arranged plots, we are reminded of the work that goes on behind the scenes. Work that perhaps often goes unnoticed as opposed to the funerary practices we are familiar with. The process Mr Ajet goes through thus far and the sight of such systematically arranged graves possibly reveals the bureaucratic element of this unseen side of death work and how death is as much a state affair as it is a personal one.
But that is not to say that Mr Ajet is alone in his endeavour or that the work he does behind the scenes is purely procedural or institutionalised. A look across the field of graves and we notice several tents set up, sheltering people who do marbling work around those graves. People who, together with Mr Ajet, form an entire community dedicated to managing this unseen work surrounding death. In speaking about them with Mr Ajet, there is a sense of camaraderie present with how he refers to them using familial terms like abang or brother in Malay. Although they are separate companies, there is no animosity between them – only friendly competition. This attitude showed us how tightly knit this community is, and how despite our identities as outsiders, Mr Ajet warmly welcomed us into it. Mr Ajet’s role in this community of workers encompasses tiling tombstones for Muslim graves, which he does alongside other companies as exemplified by the photographed worker.
Clients can choose to adorn headstones with designs ranging from simple red bricks to ornate marble, and Mr Ajet takes over from there, smearing cement and hauling bricks regardless of the weather. The sheltered tents provide some form of respite, however brief, against the relentless hot sun – though the time of day does not deter them from working, as Mr Ajet has shown us through some videos of his nightwork, demonstrating the dedication that workers at the cemetery have towards their vocation. Having previously worked in the military, Mr Ajet is no stranger to harsh working conditions. He shares stories of his time in the military with us, during which he claims to have been a “rascal”, with work keeping him away from friends. Under a bureaucratic structure, work did not allow for the development of meaningful relationships with colleagues and with work itself (Laaser and Karlsson 2022). Thus, while work at the cemetery is not easy and pays much less than his job in the civil service, Mr Ajet prefers it to working in the military as he feels more free and satisfied working at the cemetery; this enables the emergence of a meaningful relationship with work (Yeoman 2014). Besides tiling memorials at the Muslim cemetery, Mr Ajet also works alongside Mr Ramlan (pictured above) to supply flowers for bereavements.
This is the flower shop where we initially met Mr Ajet: despite it being mid-afternoon during a workday, Mr Ramlan was eager to let Mr Ajet share stories of his work with us – their rapport and mutual respect evident in their interactions despite Mr Ramlan being the shopkeeper. Having been introduced to Mr Ramlan by his godbrother, Mr Ajet shares with us that he trusts Mr Ramlan to pay him as well as he is able to, even if he has to draw a lower salary than that in the civil service. His former income stability came at the cost of office politics, mismanagement, and endless paperwork, which he is more than happy to leave behind. Being able to work on his own terms, the equal relationship between him and Mr Ramlan reinforces a sense of dignity that, Yeoman (2014) argues, contributes to one’s purpose at work. This makes Mr Ajet’s new job more fulfilling.
Although Mr Ajet has only been working in the funeral industry for a few months, he managed to make peace with himself by retrospectively assessing his past and embracing his present. He views death as a normal and inevitable life stage which should not be feared, contrary to popular conceptions of death as a taboo subject. This aligns with the aforementioned Islamic doctrines about death as a continuation of life in another form where one returns to God. Working in the cemetery, surrounded by intricately embellished tombstones, rustling trees, and familiar faces, have all contributed to the sense of spiritual renewal and tranquillity he experiences on a day-to-day basis. His identity and perceptive outlook on life are therefore constructed by performing deathcare work as a life-giving deed that he perceives to be soul-cleansing, carried out in an organic site which facilitates the forging of genuine relationships and reciprocal interactions (Laaser and Karlsson 2022).
This is the final path (both literally and metaphorically) that Mr Ajet would set foot on in his career endeavours, as he contentedly declares. Much like the winding roads in the cemetery complex, Mr Ajet’s eventful life journey has moulded his present state of being – one completely relaxed and filled with immense gratitude for where life has brought him to.
By distancing himself from the hustle and bustle of urban Singapore, Mr Ajet has acquired a greater clarity and deeper understanding of work itself – a stark contrast to how modern-day work increasingly manifests itself as a largely soul-depriving and self-interested enterprise (Yeoman 2014). In shadowing Mr Ajet throughout the course of his work, everything from the environment to his attitude towards work highlights an unparalleled sense of serenity and freedom. This informs how such a line of work can be simultaneously rejuvenating and empowering. Dealing with death is ultimately a meaningful affair which society could be more aware of and appreciate, and discussions of death should not be seen as taboo.