Lavish funerals in vogue as rich Asians go out in style

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 24 Fri Sep 24, 2010 1:36am EDT

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 24 (Reuters Life!) - Demand for luxury funerals is booming in Southeast Asia, driven by the rising ranks of the wealthy in the region.

From $100,000 gold-plated caskets to million dollar burial plots, a growing number of the rich are making the passage to the afterlife with the best that money can buy.

"Our clients tell us their loved ones deserve the best in life and in death," said Au Kok Huei, the group chief operating officer of Malaysia's NV Multi Corporation Berhad NVMU.KL, Southeast Asia's sole listed bereavement services provider.

The company offers a range of funeral services and runs cemeteries and columbariums in six countries - Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Taiwan.

Its 100,000 clients are mainly ethnic Chinese who make up more than 40 million of Southeast Asia's population. Muslims make up the majority of the population in the region, but lavish funerals are frowned upon by the religion.

Company officials said demand for luxury funerals among the ethnic Chinese has been growing especially in Indonesia, which has a small but affluent Chinese community and in Singapore, where the company runs a $22 million columbarium.

Among the more popular top-of-the-line products are a burial urn crafted from Canadian jade priced at 188,000 Malaysian ringgit ($60,780), while a gold-plated casket costs 388,000 ringgit. Prices for a basic burial provided by smaller firms start from about 4,000 ringgit.

The company's most expensive burial plots are on hilltops, conforming to Chinese geomancy principles. Each costs 1.6 million ringgit and wealthy customers usually purchase several adjacent plots for their family members.

"CEMETERY LIKE A GARDEN"

To expand further the company said it plans to offer pre-planned funeral services tied to investments in palm oil or rubber plantation schemes.

Profits from these investments are used to defray the cost of the customer's eventual funeral.

NV Multi aims to finalise a foray into China with Chinese partner next year, where it will eventually compete with players outside Southeast Asia including Hong Kong-listed Sino-Life Group Ltd (8296.HK), a funeral service provider in Taiwan and China.

Chief executive officer Kong Hon Kong, who founded the company 20 years ago, said the idea to set up the company came after he was asked to manage a relative's funeral.

"Local cemeteries were poorly run and eerie, so I thought: 'why can't we manage a cemetery like a garden so our children will want to visit us after we pass away'?"

The goal led him to design a showcase memorial park near Kuala Lumpur, currently the largest in Southeast Asia.

Landscaped to resemble a recreational park, the sprawling 809-acre (327 hectares) facility features burial plots divided according to the respective religious beliefs of its customers.

A statue of Guan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, venerated by Taoists and Buddhists, stands on the head of a kilometre-long dragon replica, while a 20-feet statue of Jesus takes centre stage at the Christian section of the cemetery.

The dead buried at the memorial aren't limited to humans. A corner is dedicated to cats and dogs, with over 100 burial plots costing 4,900 ringgit each.

"The next generation won't be afraid to go to the cemetery again," said businessman Loke Kam Weng, whose father is buried in the cemetery. ($1=3.093 Malaysian Ringgit)

(Reporting by Razak Ahmad and Angie Teo; Editing by Jonathon Burch)