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Business Insider: Digging out a niche in funeral services

Funeral home director Bayard Osborn photographed last week in Phnom Penh.
Funeral home director Bayard Osborn photographed last week in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

Business Insider: Digging out a niche in funeral services

With a predominantly Buddhist population, Cambodia’s nascent funeral industry primarily serves the expatriate community. The Post’s Robin Spiess spoke to Bayard Osborn, funeral director and CEO of Osborn Funeral Services, to discuss the services offered in the Kingdom and the challenges involved in the industry.

What range of services do you offer?
We are a full-service funeral home and international repatriation service, meaning we can provide full funeral services here including storage, collection and preparation of the deceased and services such as arranging the funeral, the flowers and the cemetery arrangements.

How long have you been in operation?
We’ve been in operation for 10 months. I’ve been in the funeral business for 11 years and have been a licensed funeral director for the past three. I am currently licensed in, and maintain full licensing through, the state of Washington, and I have qualifications in embalming and funeral directing.

What specific challenges have you faced here in trying to establish your funeral home?
First, the Ministry of Commerce wasn’t sure what kind of licence to give us, because there’s technically no such thing as a funeral home in Cambodia. We ended up being licensed as a funeral service provider.

The problem then became where we would actually be located, because no landowner is going to rent you a house where you’re going to bring dead bodies and possibly leave ghosts. We weren’t able to store bodies here on the premises, so we opened a storage facility at the local pagoda. We can store three bodies there at once.

How do you handle services for those of different religions?
Every religion has very specific rites, and if a family wishes them to be adhered to then we follow them exactly, without question. We provide whatever services we can, within reason. I have a rolodex filled with contact information for local religious leaders.

I always give some sort of service. If the person is non-religious, I usually pick a non-offensive verse that could be said and appreciated by all. I feel it is imperative that everyone gets a proper send-off.

How varied are the costs for funerals across the different services you offer?
The difference in costs between cremation and sending an entire body home are absolutely astronomical. For our services, a cremation is $1,350. What that includes is all of the basic services we offer, from processing the paperwork, providing the basic casket, arranging the cremation and storage.

Where the variable prices come in is shipping. If the ashes are to be shipped to a foreign country, the price can be high. On average, a full cremation with ashes being shipped overseas is anywhere from $1,800 to $2,500, depending on the situation.

I cannot even think about shipping an entire body home for under $8,000, though, and it’s because of all of the requirements in shipping from the airlines. If you want the body to be embalmed, too, it’s expensive. We are in a tropical environment – if things do not move at a rapid pace, embalming can be very difficult. I do not believe embalming is necessary, and have not recommended it even once.

How lucrative is the high-end funeral service in Cambodia?
Lavish funeral parties are thrown by funeral providers, not by funeral homes. Occasionally, famous people get them – but they are few and far between. At most of these parties, the body isn’t even there. The three funeral homes in Phnom Penh don’t offer those services, though. Memorial planning is separate from funeral planning.

How do you advertise your services?
Advertising is a complete waste of money for us. People find us online. The majority of our clients are the next of kin (NOK) of the dead, and they’re normally overseas. When a dead foreigner is found, officials try to find their identification in order to notify the proper embassy. Then the embassy contacts the NOK, who is responsible for picking a service provider. We get our clients usually after people try another funeral service, are appalled by it and seek out someone else.

From where are you sourcing your materials?
We source our equipment and exhaustible products from the US, China, Thailand and Australia. Basic things like gauze, medical tape, wrap and cleaning chemicals we get from local medical suppliers.

What are the main differences you’ve seen operating in Cambodia rather than in America, and what are your hopes for the future of the funeral service industry in the Kingdom?
I left America because of the ridiculous commercialisation of the funeral industry – selling grieving people $200 blankets with their loved one’s face on it. It was horrible.

Here, I have been absolutely horrified by the general lack of appreciation for the depth of the situation and the families involved. There is an added element to an overseas death – families at home have a high level of stress, and they deserve extra care. I don’t mind a cold system – but a cold system which has no functionality to it is just frustrating.

Cambodia would benefit greatly from an independent and centralised coroner system with established rates and procedures, rather than relying on for-profit medical and private businesses. A centralised facility which could be used as a city morgue would alleviate a lot of the confusion.

The funeral industry is traditionally a very shadowed industry. Many don’t want the families to know exactly what’s going on, because they might not like it. We are a business, and yes we have big fridges, and yes there are bodies in the fridges. Families know that, but they don’t want to hear about it and they don’t want to see it. Ignorance really is bliss when it comes to certain things.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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