All images by Stephanie Lee for RICE Media unless otherwise stated.
Huang Jia Wei wheels out a life-sized replica of a crane from his storage unit somewhere in Serangoon. It stands nearly 1.8 metres tall on a faux grass platform, surprisingly lifelike and detailed with feathers, its massive black and white wings regal and poised for flight.
“This still needs to be fitted with scaffolding and a whole row of LED lights,” the 41-year-old man explains as he steers the massive crane off to one side.
Cranes are often imbued with meaning in Chinese mythology—more so during funerals, where they are thought to be the trusty escort for the departed to the afterlife. Still, as impressive as the bird was, it was ancillary to the main wares of Jia Wei’s company FuShouYuan: LED funeral wreaths.
FuShouYuan(福壽緣, loosely translated meaning prosperous longevity) is one of the many companies in Singapore that offers rental services for LED wreaths and other funeral paraphernalia, such as inflatable gates, lanterns, and cranes like this one.
Instead of the traditional flower wreaths that people would send as condolences, electronic wreaths are incredibly bright, colourful, and come with various customisations while standing at a formidable 2.5 meters tall.
These newfangled devices have spurred businesses similar to FuShouYuan to mushroom across the island, taking the funeral industry by storm. At its peak, wakes across the island’s HDB void decks were seen to have 30 blinding LED wreaths lined up, often bathing the public carpark in a neon, almost futuristic fuchsia glow.
These loud and often showy displays seem to be the antithesis of what wakes should represent— solemn and sombre affairs to mourn those who have passed, as some have bemoaned.
Such social conventions and expectations mean little to funeral entrepreneurs such as Jia Wei, who largely sees himself as a supplier for a burgeoning demand.
With gloved hands, Jia Wei hauls one of his LED wreaths covered in vivid blue artificial flowers from the back, plugs it in and gets down to the nuts and bolts of the business.
Made-in-China LED Wreaths
LED wreaths are designed in a way that demands attention or at least more than their floral counterparts. The one before me comes equipped with a vibrant ring of artificial flowers that never lose their lustre, evergreen and always alive, and a large LED board in the centre. It’s impossible to miss.
“Like most things, we get the LED wreaths from China,” Jeremy Ng, 25, owner of Singapore’s largest LED wreath supplier, Last Journey Flower Wreath, explains. “We order them from China, and when they arrive in Singapore, we do some modifications to the LED wreaths”.
These modifications can range from cosmetic, such as changing flowers, to compliance, where buyers adjust the electrical voltage to ensure they are compatible with Singapore’s electrical sockets.
“We saw that these LED wreaths are actually quite environmentally friendly compared to fresh flowers where a lot of waste is generated,” says Jeremy. “We can reuse them again and again. So every time we come over, the only things that change on the wreaths are the words, that can be programmed digitally,” says Jeremy.
Customisable to Death
Jia Wei whips out his phone and toggles on the app that’s connected via wifi to the wreaths; the lights on the wreath blink from neon green to a multicoloured option twice as bright, beaming with a pattern that I can only describe as mimicking the exuberance of spin studios.
“I can input anything you want on the LED wreath,” says Jia Wei. From the orientation of words, the font, the size, and you can even input non-English characters into the LED screen. They are primarily Chinese funeral phrases that Jia Wei pulls from a handy list on his Notes app. The effect of these choices is compounded when a couple of LED wreaths are lined up, and the words run through a ticker tape display.
The little-used option is the picture option, which Jia Wei demonstrates quite comically for us. For this, a black background is preferred; a second later, a pixelated image of Jia Wei appears on the wreath. Indeed, even in death, the possibilities are endless.
Jia Wei points to another function on the app, explaining that he can even use a timer to switch the lights on and off at designated times.
Then, he gestures to the top of the wreath with the Chinese word “奠” attached. This is typically used for Chinese funerals, “I can change this to the Christian cross or the aum symbol for Hindus depending on the needs of the clients,” he says.
A Dazzling Send-off
More than the LED Wreath’s flexibility to accommodate all sorts of requests, it is also the impression these LED wreaths create. Besides guiding friends and family to the location of the wake, these LED wreaths are seen to elevate the wake, making it a much more extravagant affair.
“People want the wake to look more classy and grand,” notes Jeremy. “When the tables and chairs are covered, it can even look more like a wedding instead of a funeral. There’s a shift in people’s mindset towards making funerals and wakes look more prestigious and luxurious.”
Besides ensuring a grand send-off, there has always been a social element associated with funerals, even before the introduction of LED wreaths. An outpouring of condolences in whatever form indicates that the person who passed cultivated strong relationships and was well-loved.
A ‘livelier’ wake, filled choc-a-block with family, friends, and colleagues signifies that this person has led a full life and will have many people to remember them after they have passed.
“Most of the time, wreaths are not usually purchased by the deceased’s family. It is the friends of the deceased, the relatives of the deceased, you know, or friends of the family. It is how people show support,” says Jia Wei.
Indeed, on the surface, lining a wake with 100 LED wreaths might come across as gauche, excessive, and seem only for the sake of appearances.
Even so, in its own, very modern 2022 way, knowing that someone purchased 10 LED wreaths for your grandmother’s passing is a strong show of empathy and support.
The wreath’s presence is felt and known by everyone who attends the wake; it’s hard to not, anyway. Perhaps this overt acknowledgement of loss brings comfort and makes death feel normal and less isolating.
Keeping the Lights On
Initially, the demand for these LED wreaths was low, but people were curious about them. “It’s generally very new. People were very interested in these new LED wreaths. They find it a very novel idea, and they kind of like it because it brightens up the wake, making it grander.”
With relatively low maintenance for suppliers and increasing demand for these wreaths, more LED wreath rental companies appeared on the scene.
Each LED wreath costs S$300 to buy, excluding shipping costs. They would then retail in a pair starting at S$180, depending on the package you pick; the more wreaths per order, the cheaper it is.
At FuShouYuan, they offer five LED wreaths for S$400, making each wreath S$80 for rental.
Though a smaller operation than Last Journey Floral Wreath, FuShouYuan would receive several wreath orders for at least one wake every three days at the height of their operations.
Jia Wei and Winston concur that initially, getting into LED wreaths is a profitable business. With everyone clamouring for a piece now, however, LED wreaths have become a competitive and cutthroat industry.
“The logistics behind the business is actually more than what people think,” reveals Jeremy, “because with fresh flowers, you only have to deliver it. After that, it is none of our business anymore.”
“With LED wreaths, we have to set them up and connect them to the power source. At the end of the last day, we still have to collect the wreaths back,” says Jeremy. Onsite, Jeremy and his team have to tie and secure the wreaths to ensure they don’t fall in the event of rain or strong winds.
Despite the ease of getting the product, the job is still very much a physical one. While these wreaths are not extremely heavy, constantly moving these wreaths up and down the truck can take its toll.
“Competition is fierce,” asserts Jeremy, “because we cater to people from different walks of life.” Given the versatility of LED wreaths, supplying these wreaths can drum up quite a bit of business.
“Since we’ve been in this business, at that time, there were only around eight to 10 LED wreath companies, including us. Now, I think there are 20-plus companies. It is so competitive,” exclaims Jia Wei. With so many companies in the mix and trying to edge out the competition, some of these companies would price their wreaths at insanely low prices.
“Some of them will give larger discounts or offer the wreaths at a cheaper rate, throwing in other inflatables such as lanterns or gates,” he says, exasperated. These fluctuating rental prices for LED wreaths greatly affect smaller companies like FuShouYuan where they cannot price their wreaths any lower.
Still, it was a matter of time before these overt and highly visible displays of grief caught the attention of local authorities.
On 7 June 2022, the National Environmental Agency (NEA) and the Association of Funeral Directors Singapore (AFD) issued guidelines on using light-emitting wreaths and inflatables at funeral wakes.
Even before these official guidelines, some funeral parlours have already banned the use of LED wreaths, citing safety concerns over electrical fires.
The guidelines state that there can be up to 10 LED wreaths, inclusive of one inflatable. They must also be turned off between 10pm and 7am to prevent light and noise pollution.
Further, the size of the LED wreaths must not exceed 2.6 metres in height and 1.5 metres in width. Inflatables, such as tower lanterns, gates, and arches, must not be taller than 3.2 metres, longer than 4 metres, and wider than 1 metre.
As expected, not everyone sees the value of these LED wreaths.
“It is our position that LED wreaths are a mere commercial product that has no inherent funerary value and, in fact, run asunder the meaning of dignity in the death care of Singaporeans. We should consider, if possible, banning it,” Terence Ong, a detractor of LED wreaths, writes on behalf of the editorial team of Death Kopitiam.
Death Kopitiam is a platform that curates news about dying, death and funerals in Singapore that aims to educate and inform a Singaporean audience on the need to confront and understand our mortalities.
“With all due respect, LED wreaths, as items are, in fact, a monstrosity,” he continues.
“The proliferation of LED wreaths is a larger symptom of a dignity deficit in Singapore. We hope this conversation (or the controversies) surrounding LED wreaths can start a larger national conversation on what dignity and a dignified death mean to our people.”
Perhaps, it’s a matter of taste. While some people see the light show by these LED wreaths as off-putting and carnival-like, Jeremy sees these LED wreaths as celebrating the life of those who have passed on.
“Some people prefer the funeral to be loud, more elaborate so that people around the area know that this person has passed on,” says Jeremy, adding that it is still quite a personal choice.
The folks at Death Kopitiam view NEA’s and AFD’s decision to put out guidelines for LED wreaths as a missed opportunity.
“NEA’s decision not to implement an outright ban is disappointing, to say the least,” Terence tells me over email.
Death Kopitiam sees these LED wreaths as blithely dishonouring the person who has passed, the commercial-like ticker tape display of their names cheapening their memory even more.
“Essentially, we remain to be convinced that other than an outright commercial product, it has no intrinsic value—note: the ticker tape installed on these LED wreaths (used to present the name of the deceased) ironically brutalises the name of the person, which it claims to be celebrating.”
Blindsided by These Regulations
The sudden announcement of these NEA regulations left many smaller LED wreath companies scrambling and losing out on valuable business.
“Since these regulations were announced, we only received a grand total of two jobs,” says Jia Wei. It’s a stark contrast to the calls they used to receive every couple of days—and they are the lucky ones.
“I heard of five other wreath companies that have closed down, totally no job. They can’t pay for their rental, so they sell their LED wreaths away,” continues Jia Wei.
As Jia Wei puts it, the limit of 10 LED wreaths is “another headache” for smaller companies like his. “When we confirm the information from the job, the client will pay us. Once they’ve paid, the job is confirmed,” explains Jia Wei.
“So, we will send the LED wreaths down straight away. But sometimes, when we get down there, we realise there are already 10 LED wreaths at the wake,” recounts Jia Wei. “Eh, now how? We have to refund the clients, but that also means I lost this job.”
It’s an expensive guessing game that companies like FuShouYuan cannot afford to play.
A Misplaced Overload of Caution
As a certified technician, Winston finds the claim of electrical hazards with the LED wreaths unfounded. He holds up a shoebox-sized device with a couple of switches inside.
This circuit breaker, he tells me, is a standard among all LED wreath companies, and like all circuit breakers, it would immediately kick in in the case of an electrical overload.
“We connect our cable to the HDB’s power socket, which also comes equipped with a circuit breaker if there is an electrical fault or overload. If anything happens, we will check our LED wreaths to see if our wire short circuit or anything.”
“When we turn on the LED wreaths, we have to set their name and such, so we will be there for long enough to monitor the situation before we leave,” emphasises Winston.
Jeremy understands the consideration NEA has to take into account when enacting these guidelines.
“We are just thankful that they did not outrightly ban the wreaths.”
To Wreath or Not to Wreath
Draped with a large cloth and hidden in a box is one of Jia Wei and Winston’s latest imports, a cerulean qilin, a mythical and chimerical creature popular in Chinese folklore.
The qilin is quite the sight, roughly the size of a small pony, its white fur in sharp contrast to the bright blue, and affixed with vibrant sequins that shimmers when Winston or Jia Wei carries it.
Winston and Jia Wei tell me that this hooved animal is reserved for the passing of those of eminent status, as the legend goes. He hasn’t worked out the price for this display, but it already costs him S$3,000 to ship it over.
Indeed, this aquamarine fixture is a spectacle and one you can’t look away from, which is perhaps its intention all along. Like the LED wreaths, the qilin is designed to turn heads which further drives home the point—when commemorating those who have passed, there shouldn’t be any rules to how they want to be remembered.
Whether they howl and beat their chest, dress in black for seven years, or live stream their wake and serve marshmallows, all these expressions of loss and grief are valid.
“This is a conversation that Singaporeans need—what do dignity and respect mean in life as well as in death? What does a good and dignified death mean?” asks Death Kopitiam.
While death is absolute and universal, the experience is often varied and plural. There is no one way to have a wake, nor should there be.
A “good and dignified death” can mean many things; declaring a singular course of action robs people of the opportunity to fully express their grief.
The use of LED wreaths might be ostentatious to some and is not exactly steeped in cultural practices. But, if the flamboyant glow of these wreaths brings solace to the family in the face of their loss and authentically eulogises the person who has passed, who’s to say otherwise?