"Union Casket makes a difference by offering customised services and a sincere personal touch"
It may be a topic many are uncomfortable discussing but death is a reality that everyone faces eventually. For Grace Quek, the general manager of Union Casket, dealing with the topic is her profession.
Although just 36 years old, Quek is no stranger to the funeral services industry. Her father, William, who set up the business, started taking her to his office when she was just 12 years old. She never intended to join her father’s business. After completing school, Quek left for the US to study criminology and criminal justice. However, when she returned in 2012, she noticed that her father was looking weary. “He’s ageing and I thought it would be nice if he could have his daughter by his side to help him with everything,” she reminisces, adding that her siblings are not in the business.
Unlike several others in the industry, Union Casket is a family-run one-stop funeral service provider. Quek oversees the day-to-day operations of the company, including all the administrative work that comes with it. The company has just nine employees, each of whom wears multiple hats. They are assigned tasks from taking care of logistics to setting up wakes to being pallbearers and hearse drivers.
“We are very much focused on personalising services for each and every family depending on their budget, requirements, wants and needs,” Quek explains. “The things that customers want to spend on versus the things they need to spend on are different matters entirely.” It is the company’s job, as a funeral director, to advise the bereaved on the appropriate customs and relevant services required. “There are companies offering funeral services that would hope for you to spend more,” she adds. “But we don’t believe in [our clientele] spending excessively. We recommend that the family of the deceased get only what they really need.”
Providing a service to families who have lost a loved one is a delicate affair that requires great sensitivity, says Quek. “Being respectful in the way we talk and carry ourselves is very important. We honour the dignity of everyone involved and we handle the situation in a way that makes it easier for the bereaved to cope.” The overarching principle, she adds, is the service provided should be helpful and friendly. “For some of the bereaved, it could be the first time they are handling something like this, so we offer advice and help, so that they don’t have to burden themselves. We want as much information as possible so as to be able to render assistance wherever needed. We can even arrange for someone to keep all-night vigils or personalise services according to what they need.” In this regard, Union bucks the trend by offering tailored services instead of standard packages. This allows clients to decide how elaborate or simple they want the wake and funeral to be.
Thanks to the nature of the business, advertising the company on various media platforms may be tricky, so it restricts its promotional efforts to Facebook. For the same reason, the business is not able to expand beyond Singapore, as each country has certain laws and regulations concerning funerary rites and customs. In Singapore, however, Union receives positive feedback, which Quek puts down to sound business practices: “We keep everything pragmatic and down-to-earth. We maintain our principles and market ourselves as the go-to when funeral services are required. We are not just funeral directors, we are also friends — we don’t corporatise, so we are still the ones running the show and attending to everyone ourselves. We don’t want to lose the sense of personalisation and the personal touch.”
Social taboos concerning death and funerals mean that Union prefers not to talk about some of its CSR initiatives. But Quek discloses that the company makes an effort to give back to society. “We do a lot of coffin donations, especially to nursing homes and old folks’ homes, where there are people who don’t have next-of-kin. On top of that, we provide free services and burials.” Quek and her father are also supporters of the Yellow Ribbon project.
Being in this line does have an effect on one’s outlook on life, says Quek. Constantly aware of one’s mortality and the fragility of life, she prefers spending time and money on what truly matters. In the course of her work, she has also had experiences that left indelible impressions. “There was a funeral we once took on that involved a lady who prematurely ended her life. She was only 23 years old when she leapt off a 25-storey building, leaving behind her six-year-old child. The autopsy later revealed that she was pregnant at the time. It really made me wonder what could have caused her to take her own life, especially knowing that you have children. As a result, you tend to be a bit more philosophical and introspective, when you are constantly aware that people have just lost their loved ones, while the rest of the world is caught up in frivolity,” she says.
On a brighter note, Quek stresses that dignity and ethics underscores all of Union’s endeavours, although she and her team are exploring new ideas to take the company forward.
Her job is not without its challenges, especially since Quek is a female in a male-dominated industry, but her indomitable spirit helps drive her and the company forward. “People tend to form opinions based on your age or gender, but it teaches us to have more patience, tolerance and understanding,” she shares.
“In any industry you are in, there is bound to be competition. You just have to be sure of what you want to do,” Quek notes. “Consider the commitment involved and be open to criticism — that’s how you improve. It doesn’t hurt to hear something bad from people; take it objectively and it can help you in your business.”