The day that Chen Pui-hing received a phone call from a distraught woman was like any other. Sounding shaken, the woman thanked Chen for picking up, saying he was her only hope.

High-rise buildings in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong. Photo: Google Earth.
High-rise buildings in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong. Photo: Google Earth.

The call came at an uncanny time. Minutes earlier, Chen had received a news notification on his mobile phone: a 17-year-old parkour enthusiast had fallen to his death in Tsim Sha Tsui when a practice session on a high-rise rooftop went awry. The woman on the line was the boy’s mother. Through tears, she sighed with relief after Chen – an undertaker – agreed to arrange her son’s funeral. 

Although he is not a counsellor or a therapist, Chen hopes to help people.

As an undertaker, Chen offers companionship to the bereaved to help them through difficult times. Through his job, he tries to bring a sense of humanity to the deceased in what are otherwise often sterile and inhuman funeral parlours. For example, he seeks to make the deceased look as much like they did when they were alive as possible. This, he told HKFP, helps bring some comfort to grief-stricken families. 

He discovered his calling while still in secondary school. A teacher played Departures in class, a Japanese film about a funeral director’s quest to bring humanity to the deceased, and the young Chen saw a line of work that sought to “celebrate a life” and help bereaved families “find answers,” he said. 

After his studies, he founded the NGO HOBBYHK with like-minded friends, through which he focuses on life and death education. When not directing funerals, he organises unique workshops, including mock funerals, with the aim of helping participants cope with mortality and the meaning of life.

Chen Pui-Hing during his seminar 2
Undertaker Chen Pui-hing presents a seminar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Photo: Thomas Chan.

One of Chen’s more unconventional workshops centres on death notes. The subject of these notes may vary: some may be about the recent passing of family members or feeling lost in life, while others may explore the experience of miscarriage. Participants play both the writer and the recipient, allowing them to express their feelings and emotions from different perspectives.

According to Chen, exercises such as this encourage people to think about what truly matters to them. 

“People may say ‘carpe diem’ all the time, but it doesn’t mean much if someone feels lost at that moment. Rather, if life and death education can guide them spiritually, they can find a stronger sense of belonging, some peace to lean on, and let go of trivialities,” Chen said.   

Coffin shop Hong Kong
A man sells coffins in Hong Kong on December 16, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Ultimately, Chen wants the funerals and workshops he directs to be about “carrying on the meaning of life,” honouring the connection between the living and the dead, and helping people determine who and what are most important to them. 

“We live in a time when meaning is scarce, and we don’t see meaning in what we do. But no matter how old we are, experiencing traumatic changes can make us question life’s meaning. These experiences will help us find value and purpose and dig deep into who we are,” he said. 

Empathy in a crowded city

When it came to the teenager who fell to his death, Chen wanted the funeral to tell the aspiring athlete’s story. A celebration-of-life video showed the boy parkouring around the city with 1980s pop star Anita Mui’s ballad Homecoming playing in the background.

The hall was filled with up to 70 of the teen’s parkour and trampoline friends, some of whom had been with him when he died. His white coffin was arranged as a signing board for guests, and it was quickly filled with signatures. 

funeral flowers Hong Kong
Funeral flowers in Hong Kong on December 16, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

After the funeral, many of the young guests refused to leave, appearing afraid of leaving their friend behind. The mother eventually convinced them to move on, hoping to help them overcome their trauma and guilt. 

This story was one of several shared by Chen during a seminar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in late October. Co-hosted with Grief Me Light, a social support organisation run by a group of psychological students motivated by their bereavements, it explored viewing life and death with empathy. It attracted an audience ranging from students to people who have recently lost their loved ones. 

The seminar discussed how human stories often faded away after death. Chen also shared video footage of himself entering a cockroach-infested public housing apartment. 

The occupant, a man in his 60s, had been dead for days before neighbours complained about the stench. Chen, who arrived with police officers, encountered squalid living quarters littered with leftover food boxes, liquor bottles and newspapers. He also found payslips dated up to 2021, followed by debt collection notes from loan companies. 

paper effigy
Paper effigies, which will be burned as offerings for the dead, in Hong Kong on December 16, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Chen, who partners with social workers, is familiar with cases such as this – people who spend their final days in solitude only to be swept away and forgotten. 

For Chen, it is worthwhile to reflect upon these people’s stories and what led them to this reality. He told his audience that this awareness helps him better understand life as an individual and send off the deceased with dignity as an undertaker. 

‘With much affection and faith’

Chen’s work resonates in a cramped city troubled with stress and mental health issues.

According to mental health charity Mind HK, an estimated one in seven people will experience a common mental disorder in their lifetime. Certain parts of society – like the elderly – have long suffered from social isolation, which studies have shown can be as damaging to health as smoking and obesity while linked with higher rates of depression and suicide. 

However, there have been improvements in end-of-life care. After ranking “relatively poorly” at 22 out of 80 on the Quality of Death Index in 2015, by 2021 the city had risen to ninth place out of 81. During this period, different organisations and initiatives have remained dedicated to improving the quality of palliative and end-of-life care and raising public awareness. 

coffin shop
A coffin shop in Hong Kong on December 16, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Phoenix Ng, a social worker from the Hong Kong Anti-Cancer Society (HKACS), was among those committed to providing better hospice care. With a few hospice care workers, he founded the Hong Kong Hospice Social Workers Society (HKHSWS) to raise awareness of hospice care education through social media and seminars. 

To him, founding HKHSWS allowed him to try new ways to bring in different elements of hospice care while highlighting the importance of mental well-being and embracing death. The loss of his father at a young age drove him to try and help others cope with bereavement. 

“My father died of cancer in my secondary school years, but I bottled up the emotions until I went to university,” Phoenix told HKFP. “I didn’t even know how he felt on his deathbed… eventually, I wanted to do something meaningful in this field.” 

Phoenix’s experience with the sick and grieving taught him about many aspects of humanity, he said. A “near death” experience also impacted him profoundly. He described it as a “life flashback including all my shortcomings, guilt and trespasses, with a strong and spiritual sense that everything can be unconditionally forgiven”. 

funeral flowers arrangement
A boy walks past a shop selling funeral arrangements in Hong Kong on December 16, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

That vision has helped Phoenix bring peace to his patients. He spoke about a father in his 30s who was dying in the palliative ward at Ruttonjee Hospital. The man, who had no religious beliefs and would soon leave behind a young daughter, was petrified about what would happen after death.

Ng shared his vision and, he said, helped the father find peace in his final moments. As a parting gift, the man scribbled on two sheets of toilet paper, “With much affection and faith (有情有義)”, thanking Phoenix for providing empathy and care. 

Phoenix also runs workshops about addressing grief by transforming precious old family clothes modelled after the Woven Memories initiative started by Australian Mary Burgess, which seeks to transform garments of deceased loved ones into something memorable.

He was inspired by a woman who had nothing to commemorate her recently-passed husband after throwing his belongings away immediately after his death. He said the workshop has allowed many to let go of their sorrows and embrace the deceased in another light. 

“[Society] has labelled sadness as something negative: when someone is dead, you throw away all the stuff and grief is akin to a disease,” Phoenix said. “But nowadays, the focus should be ‘how to say hello again’: how to build a new relationship with the departed.”  

Soothing the departing, departed and bereaved

In a hidden office studio in Sham Shui Po, Pasu Ng greeted guests and students for a seminar in October. Like Chen, he works as an undertaker and undertaker after spending a few years at the CUHK medical school overseeing body donation. 

Pasu hopes to help families get through bereavement outside the funeral rituals by acting as their supporter and companion. The “conservativeness” of the funeral industry eventually drove him to seek different methods of bringing more humanity to the industry. From publishing books to running seminar workshops, he wants to break away from the established norms of life education, which he sees as being too dull and fact-based. 

Undertaker and educator Pasu Ng in his Sham Shui Po workshop
Undertaker and educator Pasu Ng in his Sham Shui Po workshop. Photo: Thomas Chan.

Funerals are a key theme of Pasu’s workshops. He leads small groups through mock services with a life-sized coffin that is decorated with flowers and candles, inviting participants to dig deep into the lives of themselves and their loved ones. The experience is meant to provide a personal journey into a person’s impact on the world and their loved ones through “safely” simulating their farewells. 

“If a celebration of life can be done when the person is still around, they can hear what people think of them and reflect on their own lives – how they live, how deep their relationships are – while they still can,” Pasu told HKFP.   

Pasu’s office studio houses different ornaments that help people “normalise” the loss of loved ones and even pets. Necklaces and bracelets with cylinders for ashes can act as portable urns that people can wear, and miniature coffins and angels are neatly displayed alongside pamphlets and books. He says the point is to help people learn to “live with grief.”

“Living in grief can either be in a very depressing manner or in a way that is colourful and resonates with everyday life. What we do as educators and undertakers should not only be about service… the messages we convey are equally vital,” he said. 

Urns, ornaments and miniature urns displayed in Pasu's workshop 2
Urns and ornaments in Pasu Ng’s Sham Shui Po workshop. Photo: Thomas Chan.

To Pasu, helping people find closure and meaning amid grief matters to him dearly. He used the Lamma Island ferry disaster as an example of how a lack of closure and support can prolong the agony. 

Thirty-nine people died when their ferry capsized after colliding with a boat off Lamma Island in October 2012. The internal report into the incident was never made public, despite a promise to do so by the previous administration, with then-leader Carrie Lam citing privacy concerns. Last month, a survivor whose sister had died in the tragedy said he was “disappointed but resigned” after a Hong Kong judge rejected his bid for a Coroner’s inquest to probe the cause of the tragedy more deeply. 

Pasu believes that time alone can’t wash away the sadness if its root cause remains unresolved, and society needs to be more empathetic rather than simply “positive vibes”.

“People expect a dramatic rebound like in the movies, but it doesn’t work that way in reality,” Pasu said. “We apply the same sense of urgency and efficiency of our everyday lives to coping with loss and grief, but this wound will remain open and bleeding if untreated.”

Pasu seeks to balance the emotional and spiritual sides of palliative care with more practical elements.  

“I also focus on the practical side of things, like showing them their medical options and helping patients plan their departure so that they can address the spiritual side of things,” Pasu said, “If not, things can become tone-deaf very quickly.”

church cross tenement building hong kong
A church spire in front of a tenement building in Hong Kong, on December 16, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

As Hong Kong’s life expectancy gets longer, the number of people needing care has also increased. Despite clinical advancements, family members who find themselves left to care for their loved ones are unprepared to handle the burden and in a number of cases, the carers themselves are also ageing.

Patients and carers can wait between six and 23 months for spaces at government care facilities, such as elderly day care and nursing homes, according to Initium. After death, the people left behind can be traumatised and guilt-ridden for years, blaming themselves for not doing enough. Pasu said that the pain can be long-lasting if the patient and carer had a genuine relationship. 

“If an old person takes care of their sick companion, which can last for years or even a decade, then time can’t make things positive because the factor that causes the distress is always there. Instead, it worsens if there is no support over the years,” he said. 

“If we guide the grieving to remember the positive experiences they shared with the deceased, they can rediscover themselves and turn the sadness into a start of a new chapter. The legacies the departed leaves behind will help the ones still on earth to carry on.”

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Thomas Chan has an interest in Hong Kong's social issues and international politics. He holds a master's degree in international public affairs from the University of Hong Kong and previously interned at Coconuts Media, covering local news and protests. His work has also appeared on The Diplomat, VICE News and the Guardian.