As funeral directors, we know when someone close to you dies your life can change in many ways. Grieving is our way of adjusting to some of these changes.
Grief is a natural response in our lives. There is no right or wrong way and men and women will grieve in different ways often finding it difficult to understand or support each other. People of different ages and cultures also have different ways of grieving.
Some things you might feel when grieving:
shocked or numb
depressed or lonely
confused and forgetful
frightened and panicky
Many people feel grief in their bodies as well, especially in the first few weeks following a death. You may feel exhausted, cold tense and shaky. You might even find it hard to sleep or feel sick and have trouble eating. These things are common reactions to grief and may require a chat with your local doctor
At Robert Nelson Funerals we recognise people deal with grief in different ways and after loss people will take their own time to deal with that loss. There will be good days and bad days. While there are no hard or fast rules that you must follow there are things that you can do that may help you. That is why Robert Nelson and the Grief Centre provides you with a support person that can assist you at this time, a listening ear perhaps, or information, support or resources that could prove useful.
Bereavement support is a complimentary service offered to families cared for by Robert Nelson Funerals and provided on our behalf by The Grief Centre. One complimentary counselling session is provided for all of our clients.
partnering with Robert Nelson Funerals
With more than 4,000 deaths each month in Victoria, there are only a small number of funeral professionals with embalming qualifications and diverse industry training working within it. You would be forgiven to ask the question who is looking after your loved one?
Fast forward to today, people are starting in the funeral business with no, or limited experience or expertise. Staff are subsequently instructed by the same inexperienced people. It would seem incredulous that your dog or cat needs to be medically attended to by a veterinarian who has carried out years of tertiary education yet those taking care of your nearest and dearest at death do not! With the advent of COVID19, many funeral homes and body transfer services were caught short with either no appropriate PPE or lack of it and certainly no formal training of how staff or employees were to use it! It would seem more out of luck than good planning that there appeared to be no funeral staff contracted COVID19 in the course of their duties in Victoria. During COVID19 some qualified mortuary staff prepared and allowed families to view COVID19 positive cases without incident. It is staggering to note that most funeral homes have staff working in their mortuary conducting invasive procedures on infectious and non-infectious remains with no qualifications and no formal training, let alone any infectious control education. Some staff are required to provide their own PPE or scrubs in the mortuary, yet others are preparing bodies in clothing that hours earlier or later they may wear while meeting a family.
Perhaps the reason for the lack of regulation lies with the industry itself. More often than not, funeral associations have tried to obtain regulation through minimum equipment, vehicles and premises guidelines. Despite the best of intentions, these guidelines are often grounded in the placement of barriers to entry for new entrants. By way of example, it is easy to spell out what equipment funeral director should have, but if they neither have the skill, expertise nor training to use it, it becomes a supercilious argument. Indeed, many have argued these minimum equipment guidelines should be mandatory requirements for health and saftey purposes.
On the surface, this would seem a genuine and rational argument. However, there is no evidence worldwide that the lack of these minimum equipment and vehicle standards has resulted in any public health and safety outbreak. So am I arguing that there should be no standards? Absolutely not! There are funeral directors in Melbourne today storing unrefrigerated bodies in garages, cupboards, and other unknown locations, that would be regarded by most in the general public as unacceptable and shocking
Local councils generally require a funeral home, of all persuasions, to have a town planning permit. Many are operating in Melbourne without the appropriate town planning permissions. Furthermore, the use of mains water-based aspiration devices within the mortuary are bound by Melbourne water regulations, requiring backflow preventers to be fitted and annually tested. Many funeral homes do not have these fitted, with the potential to ingest infectious waste back into our mains water system.
So are there any other permits required by a funeral director? Yes, the Department of Justice requires that all funeral directors are registered on their consumer affairs site, a free process without any checking at all!
What does all this really mean? For decades I have listened to the debate on licensing of funeral directors, but I’ve come to the conclusion it is not a matter of licensing as much as the lack of training and knowledge required. Until we can make training and education mandatory, we cannot begin to regulate an otherwise uneducated industry. So what training is currently available and how can I learn?
MFE (Mortuary and Funeral Educators) and FIDA (Funeral Industry Development Australia) both based in Melbourne and both teach Certificate IV in Embalming. Qualified embalmers are usually members of either the BIE (British Institute of Embalmers) or AIE (Australian Institute of Embalmers) and often have annual training programs and conferences.
MFE (Mortuary and Funeral Educators are about to release an online course in Infection Control. This would appear opportune given the ongoing Corona Virus pandemic.
And, sadly, that’s where it ends. It is hard to find an industry with so little training and so little interest in the ongoing development of its own people.
The United States has a variety of training options depending on your state. From University Business degrees majoring in Mortuary Science to TAFE-style courses and specialist colleges that all lead to state-based regulations, based on your training and qualifications. The United Kingdom through the National Association of Funeral Directors has a strong pedigree in ongoing training. Their Diploma of Funeral Directing is currently being replaced with the new NAFA Funeral Directing DipFD.
Clearly, we are nowhere near running a Diploma structured course, so what should be key training criteria for new entrants in Victoria. There are plenty examples of other local industries that have entry level courses that can be developed and built on.
The construction industry in Victoria requires all persons entering a construction site to hold a “White Card”, a one-day mandatory attendance course, in OH&S, some manual handling, and various other industry-specific training. Of course, for construction there are other specialist courses, such as riggers, doggers, traffic management, scaffolders, and so on, that can be added. In many ways, this style of learning can provide a basic framework to funeral based education.
What are some of the basic minimum subjects that need to be addressed for any new entrant or someone considering working in our industry:
Funeral Industry, Certificate, Forms and Documentation
Grave Types and OHS practices and Manual Handling at Cemeteries
OH&S rights and obligations
Perhaps we are seemingly a long way off getting any considerable change in our industry it is apparent that many now focus on profitability rather than tangible quality and true professionalism.
One thing is for certain, if we are not talking about it, nothing will change.
Robert Nelson is a fifth generation funeral director, and past President of the Australian Funeral Directors Association (Vic Division), Past Deputy Chairman of the Australian Institute of Embalmers, Member of The British Institute of Embalmers
In an age where almost everything is regulated, it would appear at odds that the Victorian funeral industry is almost devoid of any significant regulation, licensing or training.
For as long as I can ever remember, there have been industry calls for regulation., I have sat on boards that have called themselves professionals and in one case likened themselves to chartered accountants. The differences between the two could not be more startling.
For most entering the funeral industry, there is no formal or structured training. On the job learning starts from day one. Some funeral directors believe that throwing prospective employees into the “deep end” will determine if they are a suitable candidate. This may include taking them on deceased collections transfers, introduction into a mortuary and potentially witnessing autopsies, often within their first few hours of stepping foot into their premises! It’s hardly surprising some don’t last until morning tea.
Historically funeral directors, or undertakers as we were known, were cabinet makers, they made their own coffins, collected and prepared the deceased and carried out the funeral. They were real family affairs where the men would perform the day-to-day functions in the funeral parlour, but when they went out their wives attended to “walk ins” (families coming into the funeral home to advise of a death without telephoning first). Funeral directors lived on their premises and it was 24 hours, 7 day a week affair. Children of the funeral directors also lived in the funeral home. Many would grow up to take the reins of their parents. Learning was from a young age and children were instructed in how to behave and where they could and could not go within the funeral home. As a fifth generation funeral director this is how it was for me and my father before me and his father as well. For each generation we were bought up with a clear understanding of care, compassion and respect.
During the 1960s and 70s most funeral homes were no longer making their own coffins as these were being made by industry-specific manufacturers which continues to this day. Funeral Directors (as is now the preferred name) came to concentrate on the delivery of the funeral service itself. Many funeral homes up to this point had been regarded as either Catholic or Protestant funeral homes. Towns would typically have 2 funeral directors and they would generally look after one of the two major religions. This era also provided another fundamental change to this dynamic, ‘Immigration’. As with many other facets of Australian culture, the immigrants bought a wealth of new customs and traditions to our shores. Funeral directors had to adapt and learn these customs overnight. With it bought the obvious rationale that funeral homes were capable of dealing with all faiths, customs and traditions.
Throughout the 60s and 70s, we began to see many family-owned funeral homes that either had no children or indeed children that did not want to continue in the family business. Many of these small businesses began to be absorbed by larger families, sometimes the names were changed. Many of these old names still exist but may be under an ASX listed company ownership with no connection to its former owners.
Traditional funeral directors would train staff in traditional ways. A funeral crew would be made up of:
2. Hearse driver
3. Coach driver.
The most experienced staff would be the conductor; typically, this person had many years of experience and on-the-job training and mentoring before reaching this role. The hearse driver, normally the newest person, would work alongside the conductor, receiving constant instruction and mentorship. They may be in this role for several years as they learnt all aspects of the funeral industry. The coach driver has already been through this mentorship and now had greater responsibilities in collecting families and getting them to the funeral venue on time and returning them home. The next step up for them will be to a conductor.
While training was on the job wasn’t quick, funeral staff had plenty of opportunities to practice and learn from experienced knowledgeable staff with many years of learning. These funeral crews would typically work together for many years and become adept at intuitively knowing how to work together.
Funeral staff were required to work their fair share of after-hours and on-call work. This may be funeral transfers (collection of deceased from aged care, private homes, hospitals, etc). Many funeral homes also had contracts to provide coronial transfers for reportable deaths, such as murder, suicide, road trauma etc. The work would be interesting as you would not know where your next job may take you. Some funeral director assistants would struggle with these often difficult tasks. There was no debriefing or counselling provided or available at this time.
Skilled and experienced staff may also be funeral arrangers; these were the staff that would meet with families to organise funerals. As well as a thorough understanding of the operational and practical aspects of organising a funeral, a funeral arranger is required to complete the statutory and required documentation for a funeral.
The only documented and structured training was reserved for embalmers. Although there have been numerous iterations of embalming training in Australia, early embalmers did their theory and exams via correspondence and their practical case studies with local mentors and examiners. Most would take about two years to complete their studies. In Melbourne, there were only a handful of funeral homes that placed a high priority on embalmer training and education. Most did not, and many did not have trained embalming staff, and this is still the case today.
With the advent of HIV/AIDS we saw a dramatic and cohesive interest and effort in training for Infection Control practices and procedures. In collaboration with the Health Department Victoria, The Australian Funeral Directors Association and the Union movement, the industry was finally able to construct structured guidelines that were both valuable and worthwhile for all those concerned. The early courses ran for two days, addressing the stigmas of HIV/AIDs and the practical considerations of universal barrier precautions and personal protective equipment.
While early courses were well attended, interest wained and it wasn’t long before funeral homes were calling for the course to be shortened, so staff didn’t have to be away so long (2 days). Indeed, the course is now non-existent. A travesty at best and irresponsible to say the least! This strikes at the heart of an industry trying to obtain potential regulation or licensing. The inability of funeral directors to place a high priority on training or education of their workforce in funeral service.
In the early 1980s, the Australian Funeral Directors Association ran a number of 2 week live-in Funeral Management Schools, for skilled professionals to upgrade their management skills in funeral service. These have also gone by the wayside.
To read more and look at some potential solutions please read part 2 in next months blog
In these times of doom, gloom and uncertainty, there is much to be concerned with, it is almost the glass half full mentality. In Melbourne, with now stage 4 restrictions and lockdowns, it is somewhat reminiscent of a science fiction thriller, albeit one we are slap bang in the middle of. Yet, there is another “half to the glass”, and our lives continue on, different perhaps but never the less continue.
Living life and celebrating love doesn’t always need to be at full throttle and at these times can often make us aware of the small things in life that bring us pleasure. Travel, eating out, meeting up with friends, sport, even shopping are now all off our radar. So it would appear we have to look for other things to occupy us and bring joy.
We can learn much from funerals, their relevance and meaning. Funerals are traditionally a time where we reflect on life and celebrate the life lived. Many of our forebearers lives have involved great adversities, wars, famine for some, financial depression, tragedy and loss. Yet, from these, hardships have grown tremendous resilience and shaped peoples lives. We often do not reflect on these things during the end of life service, but focus on love, life and living.
The “Celebration of Life” has become a much more common term used in the past decade. In contrast, last century funeral ceremonies reflected on loss and were mostly of a religious nature citing from standard prayer books, with little reflection on the individual and their life. As the focus of many families shifted to a “Celebration of Life” so did the style and type of service.
Families once reliant on the church began using civil celebrants, “I recall most of the earlier celebrants did have some connection to churches and were often lay preachers, there was usually still some prayers within the service. I used to wonder if the family were taking our an each-way bet, a just in case clause when the got to the other side there was something.” The traditional religious service just didn’t seem to be adjusting to the changes in general life. Many wouldn’t allow certain music to be played and in some cases would not allow eulogies to be said during the service.
Today’s modern civil celebrant is highly professional and expert in their field. They can perform two separate functions at a funeral, Firstly as master of ceremonies, assisting families to structure the proceedings into order and introduce speakers and audiovisual. Secondly, they speak on behalf of families in an articulate and accurate way. Mostly, celebrants will perform both functions.
Combined with eulogies and reflections of love, life and loss, many other things personalise a “Celebration of Life” service. Location of service, Coffins, Environment, Audio Visual, music, printed materials, flowers, balloons, catering, photographs, paintings, jewellery, the list is as endless as your imagination. The key to the selection of these auxiliary services is the meaning and relevance to you. For without significance and relevance, much of the service can be lost on many.
Most of life’s celebrations are performed publicly, funerals are often advertised in newspapers. Indeed a funeral notice is a public invitation inviting anyone to attend. Sadly, COVID19 restrictions have changed this, for now, Melbourne is currently restricted to a maximum of 10 mourners only attending funerals, resulting in many families having to choose which family members will attend services. Live streaming services, having been available for some time are now a regular occurrence on most funerals. From professional streaming companies to a family member with an Ipad or smartphone are streaming services locally and overseas to family members and friends that cannot attend in person.
External catering and refreshment services that have become common on most funerals have but shut down, even families have not been able to return home for group gatherings. This is possibly one of the saddest aspects of COVID restrictions, as once the funeral has finished, there is little opportunity for family and friends to gather and reflect.
Yet, amongst all this, wisdom comes from those personally affected by a loss. One young widow said after the funeral, “most people have said to me the hardest part would be only having 10 people at the funeral, in some ways I was kind of glad I didn’t have to mourn publicly. You, know the hardest part, was restricted hospital access for my young children and me during my husbands final days”.
Celebration of life does not always need to be public, many families are choosing unattended or direct cremations services and opting to celebrate the life lost in a private and personal way. Life, love and loss do not always need to be celebrated publicly. Some see this as a sad option, yet those that choose this option are at ease with their choice as it has relevance and a strong meaning for them. It is often something that teh deceased would have wanted or indeed asked for.
Working in funeral service people say many things to us, some focus on the macabre and bizare, many wanting to know the weirdest things we have seen or been asked to do for a family. Well here is not the place you will read about that. For what is strange and bizarre to one person may be quite normal to another. Once again, relevance and meaning to the individual is where our focus is.
Although times may be tough right now, “live, life and love” and above all stay safe.
Robert Nelson is a fifth-generation funeral director and founder of Robert Nelson Funerals. Based in Moorabbin they service all Melbourne Areas, including Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas.
Ring a-ring o’ roses, A pocketful of posies. A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down!
Although now believed to be unlikely, this verse was thought to have alluded to the great plague of 1665.
I began writing this article months ago before any restrictions had been bought into place in Australia. Originally I was researching what to expect and how to prepare our funeral home and what was occurring throughout the world in funeral service. Eventually, I shelved the article as we seemed to be swamped with COVID overload. Although the COVID19 pandemic is by no means over I finally, decided to finish what I started to see where we have come from and what effects it has had on our industry.
On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
The Australian Government issued a health alert as a precaution, based on the latest and best medical advice.
Across the world
“Across the world, there have been about 82,704 confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) and 2,814 reported deaths. Of confirmed cases reported globally, the case fatality rate is approximately 3.4%. The case fatality rate in countries and regions outside mainland China is 1.4% (To put it in some perspective typical Australian Death rate is 7.3 deaths /1000 population (2018 est) or 0.0073%)
The majority of cases of COVID-19 have been reported from mainland China. 4,207 cases have been reported from 49 countries and regions outside mainland China. Since 27 February there have been 623 new cases and 14 deaths reported outside of mainland China.”
As at 06:30 hrs on 28 February 2020, we have 23 confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Australia:
8 in Queensland
4 in New South Wales
7 in Victoria
3 in South Australia
1 in Western Australia
15 of these cases are reported to have recovered. The remaining cases are in stable condition. 8 cases are passengers who were on the Diamond Princess repatriation flight from Japan. They were in quarantine at the Manigurr-ma Village Howard Springs facility in Darwin when they tested positive to coronavirus (COVID-19). All of these people have returned to their home states for medical treatment.
(Australian Government Department of HealthCoronavirus (COVID-19) health alert, 28/02/2020)
As the world struggles with the implications of the Coronavirus what are the implications for the Funeral Industry in Australia and Worldwide?
Hong Kong –Coronavirus outbreak leaves Hong Kong funeral homes facing coffin shortage. City’s industry supplied by factories in Guangdong
(South Chine Post, 23/02/2020)
City’s industry supplied by factories in Guangdong that were ordered to close to stop the spread of the virus
Hong Kong government had to step in but only enough coffins left to last until the end of the month
The coronavirus crisis has led to a coffin shortage in Hong Kong after the outbreak stopped production over the border. Factories in Guangdong province were ordered to close until February 10 to contain the spread of the highly contagious virus, which causes the disease Covid-19.
The shortfall has triggered a warning from Hong Kong funeral parlours that stocks could dry up within days. Kwok Hoi-pong, chairman of the Funeral Business Association in Hong Kong, told the Post the temporary ban also covered the delivery of finished coffins to Hong Kong. According to Kwok, Guangdong accounts for 99 per cent of the coffins used in the city, and demand for them ranged from 120 to 140 per day. (MSN News.com)
Sichuan, China – Orders issued by China’s top health authority for the swift cremation of the remains of coronavirus victims at facilities near the hospitals where they died appear to be an overreaction and unnecessary to curb the transmission of the disease, top epidemiologists have said. The February 2 notice from the country’s National Health Commission requires hospitals to notify funeral parlours of the death along with family members but also states the procedure can be completed even if the family of the deceased does not agree.
(Al Jazeera, 09/02/2020)
The USA- In the United States States, National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) has consulted with federal officials and embalming experts. At this time, they recommend that should an individual die from coronavirus, funeral home personnel who will come into contact with the body should use universal precautions. For more information, please see the CDC website with recommendations for healthcare providers – specifically, see section two, “Adherence to Standard, Contact, and Airborne Precautions, Including the Use of Eye Protection”
(National Funeral Directors Association, USA 26/02/2020)
24th May 2020
Move forward to today, worldwide there are now over 5.28 million confirmed cases of COVID 19 and 340,000 deaths. Australia 7,106 Confirmed cases and 102 deaths.
The economic effects of COVID19 have been well documented. But, what effect has this had on the funeral industry?
Some have suggested that the industry has benefited from COVID deaths? Let me put this in perspective, Victoria has had 19 COVID19 related deaths, yet during the period January – March 2020 there have been 10,111 deaths (not related to COVID19) – Births Deaths and Marriages, Victoria. While still very sad for each of those families, the overall COVID19 figure has been very low, in relation to any effect on funeral service throughout the state.
When restrictions were bought into Australia the most significant changes to funeral service have been the restrictions on the number of mourners attending a funeral, originally only 10 persons this has now increased to 20 in our state. For many families, this has been extremely difficult in deciding who does and who does not attend the funeral service. There has been much said about live streaming and how this is the panacea to helping families. While it has assisted many families, the act of being there in person to support families is not lost on many.
During this time of restriction, many families have made comments on how personal and private their funerals were and something they would consider in the future. Sadly, extended families and friends have not had this opportunity of saying farewell in the traditional way we know.
Many families have chosen not to have a service at all, with direct, or unattended cremation services on the increase. It is important to understand this type of cremation service has been on the increase for some time. Chosen for either cost or more commonly simplicity I think we can expect to see this continue to increase in popularity.
Perhaps this greatest effect has been on the closure of many of the alternate funeral venues, golf, bowls, yacht clubs have all been forced to close their doors. These are the places where contemporary funerals are held, where the focus is on family, friends and celebration of life. Usually mixed with food, drinks imagery and contemporary music. Civil celebrants, who often lead these types of services have often not been engaged throughout this period and have been noticeably quiet.
Thankfully many will be able to have memorial services in these locations when some sense of normality returns.
Although much was made about the lack of PPE(Personal Protection Equipment), sanitisers, body bags etc, the industry has copped relatively well and there now appears to be sufficient stocks available. Oddly, there have been anecdotal stories of some directors not carrying any PPE going into the COVID19 crisis, when indeed this forms part of funeral directors regular kit.
While there has been much written about the health care staff, internationally those countries and places with significant COVID19 related deaths have personally taken its toll on some funeral directors. Having to deal with large caseloads, restrictions on family visitations and even no attendance burials, many in the industry have struggled to cope with the personal impact and rapid changes this has all bought about.
The risks to funeral staff in Australia are still high. As we often enter aged care facilities, hospital and the like, protocols are now in place to register and record those entering and staff are normally temperature checked. The same cannot be said when entering private homes.
COVID19 is by no means over and as we continue to deal with new restrictions, protocols and procedures, we should be forever mindful of the human toll this has had on mankind.
Continue to take care.
Robert Nelson is a 5th generation funeral director with more than 3 decades in the funeral industry. He is the owner and managing director of Robert Nelson Funerals, based in Melbourne, Australia