Mrs Hsu, in her 90s, is sobbing over the loss of her husband. At the Taipei funeral home she cries out at a lifetime of images while relatives and friends hold themselves back. Attendants, men and women in black uniforms and white gloves, make sure the grieving bid their ﬁnal farewells in an orderly and digniﬁed way.
“In a moment like this we share the family’s deepest pain,” Cindy Chang, a senior funeral director at Lungyen Life Service in Taiwan, says from the sidelines of Mr Hsu’s service.
Funerals in Taiwan aren’t always this calm. Until recently some traditional Taoist ceremonies could go to extremes of incorporating bikini-clad strippers on a neon-lit truck or third-party mourners, who are hired to wail on demand, to provide a loud send-off.
That always gives David Lee, 53, a chill. He started Lungyen two decades ago, and it can claim to be the world’s third-largest funeral specialist by market capitalisation, at $1.23 billion. Only Service Corp International (SCI) and Hillenbrand of the US are larger.
Back then, circus-like funeral rituals and the sector’s lack of professionalism in Taiwan provided an opening to Lee—a mechanical engineer by training who was managing his father’s $15 million-revenue business, shipping conducting foils to Japanese electronics makers.
His father’s best friend offered to let him take over a cemetery in the mountainous northwest coast of Taiwan at a discounted price of $30 million, to be paid in instalments. “I never thought I would have entered into the funeral business,” he says. “But after years of effort we’re bringing the bright side to the dark business of death.”
Lee recalls his ﬁrst visit to a government-run funeral home in Taipei., following the cemetery deal, as “head-spinning”.
“Short of freezers, corpses were scattered in the hallway without any cover. Some of them, packed in dry ice, began to turn red,” Lee remembers. “An executive from the Loewen Group [since acquired by Service Corp] who accompanied me told me that it was the scariest funeral home he had ever been to, after 30 years on the job.”
That horrible experience, however, didn’t scare Lee away, nor did the surprise of friends that he would take on such a tarred trade. With no experience, Lee looked to Japan, where he’d done business for his father, for a “much more civilised” approach to handling funerals.
Sun-Life of Japan, in particular, became a model as Lungyen sought to set his operation apart from Taiwan’s mom-and-pops. Lee commissioned folk-customs experts to retrieve authentic rituals in the Chinese Confucian funeral culture. The packaged services Lungyen offers cost an average of $8,350. Lungyen does 5,000 services in a normal year.
Meanwhile, Lee initiated expensive construction of a 20-storey columbarium at his cemetery site, a so-called yin zhai (residence for the deceased). Cremation is now the vastly preferred means of handling the deceased in Taiwan, where the price of scarce burial grounds has skyrocketed.
On its completion in 2002, business took off. The vault emerged as the company’s major proﬁt driver with prepaid spaces. These advance sales, in which Lungyen dominates in Taiwan, are an especially high- margin business. Whether for future or current use, the resting places account for 70 percent of the company’s sales and have quadrupled in ﬁve years. (In the ﬁrst half of 2013, the company reported pretax proﬁt of $32.7 million on $68 million of revenues, a sales drop-off from the year earlier period when its latest outdoor urn spaces were put on offer.)
Renowned architect Tadao Ando and glass artist Heinrich Wang were recently recruited by Lungyen to collaborate on the interior design of the pagoda’s 17th ﬂoor, where their artistic exhibit, ‘Flawless’, anchors urn spaces that go for a minimum 30 percent premium, at up to $44,000 apiece. “Our capital-intensive business model left our competitors powerless in catching up,” Lee says.
“Traditional funerals may be boisterous but are far from as solemn as those Lungyen organises,” says 70-year-old Hung Chun-chang, who has reserved cubic space for his and his wife’s urns next to those of his deceased parents at Lungyen’s columbarium. He adds, “I like the view here.”
Lungyen is credited within the funeral trade for raising the bar for even basic services. For example, it recruits none but college graduates with a soothing demeanour as its funeral directors. All clients are treated with care with a money-back satisfaction guarantee.
It was 2009 when Lungyen ﬁrst drew in Japanese architect Ando to be the lead architect of a new graveyard bordering on the original site. It is to be green in every sense, at one with its surroundings, with cherry-blossom-lined boulevards included at an estimated cost of $333 million.