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Funeral industry booming in Taiwan

Image: students practice styling hairon mannequins
Teachers observe students at the Lung Yen Life Service Co. funeral home Jan. 11 as they practice styling hair on models in Taipei, Taiwan. Wally Santana / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Turns out that designing computer chips and marketing flat screen televisions are not the only desirable jobs in Taiwan, one of Asia's high-tech hubs.

There's also embalming.

When a funeral home advertised 10 openings recently, some 2,000 people applied.

The main attraction: the money.

A licensed embalmer with a college degree earns up to New Taiwan dollars 1.2 million ($37,500) a year at Lung Yen Life Service, the upscale funeral home that was seeking new workers. That's equal to the pay for a junior engineer in Taiwan and more than twice as much as a hairdresser. It's almost as much as the average pay for an embalmer in the U.S., where incomes are much higher.

The industry has also run advertising campaigns in recent years to try to change the perception that the business of handling corpses is unpleasant.

"In the past, if you told your parents you wanted to work in the funeral business, they would have passed out," said Fung Chia-li, a manager at Chin Pao San Group, another Taiwanese funeral home. "Now it is considered a decent job, though probably not as respected as teachers or engineers."

Funerals are lavish in Taiwan, often involving weeks of ceremonies and elaborate processions with brass bands, dancing girls and hired mourners, who are paid handsomely to weep their hearts out for someone else's deceased relative. Embalming can include massaging the body with perfumed oils or a new hair style — anything from conservative to punk.

Big business
According to the Interior Ministry, the funeral industry on this island of 23 million people generated about NT$50 billion ($1.6 billion) in revenues last year. That was more than $12,000 per corpse — about 75 percent of the average annual income — an indication of how seriously Taiwanese take their funerals.

Cremation has overtaken more expensive burials in recent years, but funeral homes have kept revenues from falling by upgrading their services and building lavish structures to house the ceramic urns containing the ashes of the dead, Fung said.

The bodies are still embalmed for the funeral service before cremation.

Her funeral home sells a shoebox-size urn space for up to NT$500,000. The urns are placed in towers with marble-paved lobbies in a 247-acre cemetery facing the Pacific Ocean. When lit up at night, the towers look like monuments.

"The funeral process is a unique part of Chinese culture, a form of filial piety extended to ancestor worship in the belief their spirits can protect offspring in generations to come," Fung said.

There are about 1,100 licensed embalmers in Taiwan. Their work often includes other funeral-related services and ceremonies as well.

Big money was one of the things that drew Yuan Cheng-yi, 43, to a job at Lung Yen Life Service some five years ago. That was when the former beautician discovered that working on dead bodies paid more than working on live ones.

Sprucing up the dead requires more skill than helping the living get ready for the big night out, said Yuan, who would not reveal how much she now makes.

"The skin of an iced body is extremely fragile and will peel off if not handled with care," she said. "And only a first-rate massage can relax a dead body and bring a peaceful expression to its face."

The final journey
Embalming is widely performed in the West, but Taiwanese funeral parlors — known for meticulous customer service — seem to have refined the art to new levels. Lung Yen offers what sounds like an upscale spa treatment. Priced at NT$55,000 ($1,700), it includes shampoo, oil massage, liberal applications of makeup, and a haircut of choice.

Relatives can watch.

After sitting through the two-hour process of bathing and massaging her 91-year-old mother-in-law at a morgue recently, Wu Ai-hua said the short-lived embalming before the cremation was well worth it.

"We were very moved ... to see her getting this last measure of peace and dignity," she said.

Another factor drawing people to the funeral industry was the Japanese film "Departures," said Samantha Niu, a manager at Lung Yen Life Service. The 2009 Oscar winner for best foreign film tells the story of a jobless cellist finding dignity and self-fulfillment in tending to the dead as an embalmer.

Lin Yun-chi, 32, a newly-recruited embalmer at Lung Yen, believes she has what it takes to do her job well.

"It's not that I'm so much bolder than others," she said. "But I want to make the deceased look good on their final journeys."