Grit, passion, and youthful energy: This is our first-ever embalming team intern

Grit, passion, and youthful energy: This is our first-ever embalming team intern

We don’t usually recruit interns—certainly not for the embalming team—but when we do, it’s got to be 18-year-old Ashley Peh. An aspiring paediatric surgeon, Ashley came to us upon encouragement from her father, who cautioned her that she must be ready to face death in order to be a doctor.

Being an intern without an embalmer licence, Ashley could only observe her mentors at work for the most part of the month-long stint. Every now and then, she would help out with simple chores like retrieving clothing for the deceased. Despite being tasked with a seemingly menial job, she was able to glean much insight and wisdom from the experience.

In fact, the sprightly biomedical science student was so inspired by the work we do that she volunteered to take on an ad-hoc night duty—waitering at wakes. When asked if that would be too much on her plate, Ashley was quick to reassure us that the extra responsibility wouldn’t impact her studies. Some might wonder, how could a young girl like Ashley be so open to an industry that’s regarded as a taboo by many? Well, the answer can be found in our interview with her right here below.

How did your friends react when they found out about your unusual internship?

They were shocked and in disbelief, and they gave comments like, “Aren’t you scared? You’ll see ghosts!” I guess it’s because there are a lot of stereotypes surrounding the funeral industry and death. We Chinese have the saying that the dead will “qian ni zou”, which means drag you along.

I also encountered people who asked, “You’re so young, why would your parents even let you do this?” But my parents told me that I’m not doing any harm. And if anything, I’m helping people with their final journey, so they would be thankful to me instead of hurting me.

Did these comments make you think twice about the internship?

No, I don’t want to be limited by all these superstitions. My family is also very supportive of me and when they hear such comments, they will tell the person not to say that. Because of this, I know that I have someone backing me up and I don’t get affected.

What were your initial concerns or expectations about the job?

Before this, I thought all embalmers did was dress the deceased and put on makeup for them. And I thought how hard could that be? There was also an element of fear because the mainstream media always portray death as something very disturbing and bodies get reanimated in movies. So I was actually afraid that the bodies might move on their own and I became quite anxious a few days leading up to the internship.

What was the job like in reality?

I feel that ignorance was what led me to this internship. It was a shock to me when I was shown the full job scope of the embalmers on my first day of work. The embalmers don’t just make the deceased look pretty, they also do proper preservation to ensure that the deceased will continue to look their best for the entire duration of the wake. Extensive skills and knowledge are needed to identify the location of the veins or know where to make cuts on the body. I was no longer scared after the first day, because the process was clinical and the embalmers were all so professional.

Ashley (far left) and the embalmers

Ashley (far left) and the embalmers at Direct celebrate an internship well done.

What were some challenges that you faced and how did you overcome them?

One challenge I faced was mental-emotional fatigue. I felt affected when I saw the post-mortem cases and children who passed away. Those images got stuck in my head and were played over and over again. To get over it, I talked it out with my parents. They didn’t say anything much, but I felt like I was being heard. Talking to them made me feel better and helped me to process my feelings.

What are some of the things that you’ve learnt from this internship experience?

It gave me a different and wider perspective on death. Death used to be something that I didn’t want to think about. Nobody wants to think of death and what happens after it, right? But during the internship I was forced to see death day in and day out. I have come to accept the fact that death is a normal part of life that we are all going to go through and this makes it less scary.

I also realised how fragile life is. Death can be so sudden like due to an accident or a heart attack, and sometimes the deceased can be so young such as in their 20s or 30s. When you go for medical checkups, the doctors always say that if you’re obese you have a higher risk of heart attack. But I have seen some deceased who looked to be of perfectly healthy weight and died of heart attack. You never know when your life will be taken away. Realising this helps me to figure out and cherish what’s important. Something else that struck me was that no matter how rich you are, you end up on the same table. The clothes that you wear may be different, but you essentially go through the same process.

I’ve also learnt how to plan a funeral if one of my loved ones passed away. The guys from the operations team were very willing to share with me the planning process, from what happens in the hospital, to who I should contact. I feel that this is a very important thing to know. Imagine how disoriented it can be to lose a loved one and not know what to do.

Any words you’d like to say to your mentors?

I guess it would be “Thank you!” They really slowed down in my first two weeks on the job, so that I could see exactly what they were doing. They took the time to explain to me how the embalming machine works, function by function. They didn’t have to do that, but they did. They also cared a lot for me and watched out for my mental health. They would check in on me and ask if I was OK. It’s a very supportive environment and they also encouraged me to ask questions, regardless of whether the question is stupid or not. So, thank you for being very patient with me!

This article is part of a series of interviews with our colleagues from the various teams in Direct. Who would you like to see featured here? Drop us a message via our Instagram @directfuneralservices to let us know!