Undertaker Roland Tay and family stars in TV show
New TV show sheds light on undertaker's family business
Well-known local undertaker Roland Tay hit the big 70 two days ago, but he spent the day the same way he has spent his days for over 40 years since entering the death trade.
Aside from a birthday lunch with his family, it was business as usual for the founder of Direct Funeral Services.
Mr Tay, his daughter Jenny Tay and her husband Darren Cheng are always on call due to the unpredictable nature of their job.
Now, in a new TV series called Death Is Our Business, viewers will be able to get a glimpse of the highs and lows of their profession, the dynamics in their personal relationships as well as Ms Tay and Mr Cheng's wedding last year.
The six-episode reality TV docu-series, which will debut on Channel 5 on April 2 at 10pm, offers behind-the-scenes access that will shed light on the funeral services industry.
Filming took place over two months between September and November last year, when the production crew trailed the trio as they attended to the families of the deceased, made funeral arrangements, oversaw the embalmment of corpses, scattered ashes in the sea and more.
It took Ms Tay, 30, the company's managing director, a while to get used to the cameras.
"You'll see some of our arguments, or moments where my father cooked his famous pig's trotters for us, which he also offered to the crew," she told The New Paper.
Mr Tay, who said he is not camera-shy, to knowing laughter from Ms Tay and Mr Cheng, added: "Sometimes I can't sleep because there's a (cameraman) standing there watching me. It's a very weird feeling."
Meanwhile, the calls from affected families just keep on coming.
Mr Tay, who mans the company's hotline, has three mobile phones and never misses a call.
Two Nokia 105 mobile phones - one in hot pink and the other in black - have the dedicated functions of making outgoing calls and answering incoming calls.
Sometimes, Mr Tay is on both mobile phones as he attends to an incoming call on one while placing an outgoing call on the other.
His third phone, a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 smartphone, serves all other purposes.
Mr Tay is so dedicated to his job that his black Nokia mobile phone has a Velcro strip attached to its casing.
Said Ms Tay: "He answers his phones anywhere, so he'll stick them to the bathroom wall, the bed frame or the steering wheel. Even when he showers, his phone follows him.
"He told us he was having trouble sleeping for three days when we tried to take over.
"He likes the personal touch of talking to the families himself and these families are familiar with him.
"Even in the middle of the night, he picks up the calls, sleeping about three or four hours each night."
The trio insisted there is nothing "eerie or creepy" about their jobs.
Still, as Mr Tay put it, the dead do follow him - literally.
"For cases of the poor or destitute who have no families, I collect all their ashes and keep 20 to 40 urns in my car or bedroom if I forget to bring them up to the shop.
"I believe they know we're just doing our best to help them so it's all okay," he said.
The trio also find themselves sometimes being the bereaved families' pillars of strength.
On the show, Mr Tay was forced to break the news to a family that their grandmother, who was in her 70s, had died in Genting Highlands.
He had been informed about her death before the family through his contacts there.
But thinking he was a con man out to scam them, the family called the police to intervene.
"I don't blame them. It's tough being the bearer of bad news. You have to do it in a very delicate manner and try your best to console them after," said Mr Tay.
Emotions do get the better of them, but they have to try their best to be strong for the families.
Mr Cheng, 31, the company's operation and business development director, recalled one of his earlier cases where an only son, a 26-year-old man, chose to end his life.
He recalled: "When the eulogy was delivered at his funeral, the master of ceremonies wrote one that helped the boy say goodbye to his parents.
"After that, his parents held onto each other and wept as they said goodbye.
"I couldn't take it, I had to go to the toilet to wipe away my tears."
Direct Funeral Services is especially known for its pro bono work, arranging free funeral services for murder victims, the poor or the destitute.
Mr Tay often tries his best to fulfil all requests and he approaches cases with a "never say no" attitude.
When a sickly 84-year-old man named Mr Wee, who was living alone in French Road, asked that Mr Tay handle his funeral when he dies, Mr Tay was worried that he would not know when that would be.
So he signed up for Singtel's Home LIVECam service to monitor Mr Wee through his mobile phone daily.
"He told me he doesn't want to die and decompose like his neighbour.
"We came up with this plan so I will know if he falls or if anything happens to him," said Mr Tay, who occasionally pays Mr Wee a visit with Ms Tay.
While Mr Tay believes in karma, he has a stronger belief that the deceased deserve a dignified and proper send-off.
"Race, wealth or nationality never matters... As long as they were once breathing, once alive, I'll do my best to help them," he said.
Roland Tay's most unforgettable cases
BEDOK RESERVOIR MURDER-SUICIDE (2011)
In September that year, the bodies of Madam Tan Sze Sze, 31, and her three-year-old son, Jerald Chin Le Hui, were found floating face down in Bedok Reservoir after they were reported missing for two days.
Madam Tan's family believed it was her estranged husband, Mr Willy Chin, who was to blame for their deaths.
Mr Chin, then 33, was forbidden by his in-laws to pay his last respects. But Mr Roland Tay made it possible by seizing the opportunity when Madam Tan's mother left the wake for a short while.
Mr Tay said: "The whole night I was with him, trying to hatch a plan so he could say goodbye one last time. When Madam Tan's mother left, I told him to go.
"He paid his respects in all of those five short minutes and then he rushed into a waiting taxi that I had booked beforehand."
Mr Tay's daughter, Ms Jenny Tay, said: "I guess you can say my dad is a good 'events planner' too."
AH MENG'S DEATH (2008)
When the 48-year-old iconic orang utan died of old age in February that year, a special memorial service and burial was held for her at the Singapore Zoo's Garden With A View.
Mr Tay had donated a white human-sized coffin for the funeral.
"It was a very touching, emotional moment. Some 4,000 people turned up and like them, I was teary," he said.
HUANG NA'S MURDER (2004)
The high-profile case will always stay with Mr Tay.
Huang Na, an eight-year-old girl from China, went missing in October.
Her naked body was found three weeks later in a cardboard box at Telok Blangah Hill Park.
Her mother's co-worker, Took Leng How, a Malaysian, was found guilty of murder and hanged in November 2006.
"We still keep her tablet in our office. You'll see it when you first enter," said Ms Tay, adding it was one of the saddest cases they have ever seen.
About the reality show
Death Is Our Business is Channel 5's first reality TV docu-series.
According to the assistant vice-president of programming for Mediacorp's Channel 5, Mr Lee Hung Sheng, the show "will provide exclusive insights and challenge thinking" by touching on content that has not been previously discussed at length.
He told The New Paper: "We believe the content will not (be a) turnoff and the topic won't be taboo. Plus, the show is about family values. It's about love, respect, transmitting entrepreneurship skill sets, inspiring younger Singaporeans to venture into unconventional areas and compassion for the community."
The show will also delve into Mr Tay and his family's plans to revolutionise the funeral business industry.