Recollections from the Funeral City: Illustrator Ethan Sim's comic ruminates on death and how we cope, individually and culturally

Originally from Singapore but now based in New York, Ethan Sim is a young illustrator whose artwork draws in Eastern and Western influences and often explores personal experiences that resonate – including the big themes of life and death.

Grief is an emotion we will all experience, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought this into sharp relief for millions of families around the world all at once. While many have moved on, with governments everywhere wishing it so, for those who were prevented from being with their loved ones near the end, the pain lingers. Recollections from the Funeral City by Singaporean illustrator Ethan Sim is a self-initiated comic that explores these emotions in a highly personal way as well as documenting his time working in the funeral industry.

The story begins with the passing of Ethan's grandfather from pneumonia during lockdown in 2020. "He was already in a bad way at the time, so it didn't take us by surprise. However, because of protocols, we couldn't visit him at the ICU right before he passed, and there was a limit to the number of people who could attend his funeral," says Ethan.

Helping with the funeral arrangements helped Ethan cope better with his grandfather's death, which led to the artist's interest in what funeral directors actually do. When an internship at a funeral home arose, he applied and began working there. "It was such an eye-opening experience that I knew I had to make a comic about it," he says.

At the time of writing, the project is a work in progress and with the first chapter available to sample on Ethan's site, he is looking for a publisher. In muted tones of purple and with highlights in rich orange, the palette is unusual, surprising and tinged with melancholy. Ethan's line work, meanwhile, is inspired a little by Japanese Gekiga comics from the 1970s and even more so by Western storybooks such as The Adventures of Tintin.

The title, Recollections from the Funeral City, comes from what Ethan learned about his home city of Singapore while he helped the undertakers. "From the homes, crematoriums and hospitals to the cemeteries and temples we frequented, I saw a different side to a place I thought I was familiar with. That being said, Singapore is a small and densely populated island state. Because of the way it's zoned, if you drive around long enough, you'll eventually encounter a funeral taking place at the bottom of a public apartment block. They are very much a part of the ebb and flow of the city," he explains.

Ethan studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York, and his work typically covers what he describes as the "uncanny realm between the fantastical and the mundane." How we imagine death and the afterlife overlaps with that realm, and while his comic depicts the practical workings of the funeral industry in Singapore, it also considers how his native culture navigates the topic of death.

"It's fascinating how different cultures have such unique interpretations of the afterlife. It's one of life's great mysteries, yet there exists so much visual and written material around it throughout history. I'm drawn to the artwork and ephemera mostly in how they help people reconcile death – from Hieronymus Bosch's paintings that envision the Christian Hell in uncanny detail to the paper houses and banknotes that the Chinese burn for their dead to use in the next world," says Ethan.

The pandemic is behind us. Ethan is back in New York City, hoping his project will take flight while he works on commissions and adds to his portfolio. His artwork can also be enjoyed in Rebranding for Sea Monsters, written by Luke Somasundram and published by Checkpoint Theatre in the Singapore.

Other pieces in Ethan's portfolio explore similar themes.

Other pieces in Ethan's portfolio explore similar themes.


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