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
My forebearers were involved in some of the early cremations on the cremation pyres of the Ballarat goldfields in the 1800s. Much has changed in the way we cremate and societies views on it.
Today, cremation accounts for almost 60% of all disposition in Victoria (Births Death Marriages Victoria July 2020 – September 2020). With so many people choosing cremation over burial, How much do we really know what happens behind the scenes?
In Victoria, all crematoriums must be on cemetery land, and all cemeteries are on crown land, so unlike other states and other countries, Victoria does not have private crematoria. In states and countries that do have private cremation, there is a significant difference in fees. In the report commissioned by the Victorian Government “Victorian Cremation Industry Viability” by Marsden Jacob Associates 2004, “the cremation price is a small proportion of the overall cost to the bereaved and is unlikely to affect the burial/cremation decision. The bereaved are generally more concerned with the total package price.” This would seem to contradict what has occurred to fees in a market where private operators exist.
With an increasing number of funeral operators offering low cost , direct or unattended services the cremation cost can account for more than 50% of the overall fees.
So how do these private crematorium function?
In most place throughout the world, the crematorium is located in the rear of the funeral home and operated by the funeral director, Fees can be up to 50% lower than those currently charged by public crematoria.
How do most people see cremation?
People on a regular basis tell me how they have been into the crematorium and witnessed the cremation. While this is possible most mourners will only get as close as the crematorium chapel. Most crematoria in Victoria have chapels and function areas that are separate from the crematorium. Mourners will normally attend the chapel for the service and at the conclusion, the funeral the coffin turn from view or is lowered out of sight. Some cremators are located directly behind the chapels. The coffin is removed from the catafalque (the lowering device) and will await cremation. In other instance, the coffin is loaded into a vehicle and transported a few hundred metres to the crematorium building. the cremation may occur immediately but in some case will occur the following day.
With an increasing number of Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist families in Melbourne, the cultural requirement to witness the cremation has increased and more families are requesting this option. Don’t be surprised, that the crematorium charges a fee for families to witness the cremation of their loved one.
In many countries that our new Australians come from, the service would often be held in front of the cremation chamber. In Melbourne, small numbers of the family either watch the cremation on a video screen in an adjoining room or witness the coffin entering the cremator behind a glass window. The process for families is quick. The coffin is loaded onto a special device that will discharge the coffin into the cremator. The doors of the cremators remain closed until that family is ready. Once settled, the family will indicate to the cremation operator to proceed. The door slides up and the coffin is quickly injected into the cremator. The door is quickly closed. Families will leave after this. The whole process may take less than a minute.
The cremation itself takes 1-2 hours.
Ashes or cremated remains
The terms ashes tend to infer the cremated remains are like cinder, very light and like powder, however, most people are surprised when the cremated remains are returned. Ashes are skeletal remains and the average cremated remains urn will weigh approximately 3kg. Typically remains will be ready for collection within 48 hours after cremation.
Is the coffin cremated or reused?
Absolutely not. The coffin as you see it is not opened once entered the crematorium building.
Do I need to use a coffin at all for cremation?
While some crematorium now accepts non-coffin cremation the deceased still needs to enter the crematorium in a sealed container and be on a solid base. The body is usually wrapped in a cotton shrouds similar to the way Muslims would bury their loved ones and secured to a plantation pine cremation bearer. Some feel this is a good environmental option.
What can I place in the coffin?
Unlike burial, there are restrictions what you can place in a coffin for cremation. Batteries are definitely not to be included (due to the possibility of explosions) and the funeral director will sign a declaration that any pacemakers have been removed. Excessive plastics should be avoided and bottles are now on the band list due to effect they can have on cremated remains. Bodies can be dressed as normal.
Can I use a cardboard coffin?
Yes, there is special cardboard coffins known as Bio board.
No, many people are choosing to have a direct or unattended cremation. The body and coffin are taken directly to the crematorium without anyone attending. Many families choose to have some other celebration of life event, from a very private personal scattering of cremated remains in meaningful locations with a few people, to large elaborate and often noisy lunches. There are no rights and wrongs when it comes to celebrating a life, just relevant and meaningful events. So the choices are all yours to make
Can we seperate cremated remains for different members of our family?
Yes, just ask your funeral director and he will arrange this for you.
Cremation Urns, Jewellery, Scattering tubes
There is a large range of options open to families to choose from in deciding with what to do with cremated remains. There are literally thousands of different types of cremation urns, made from every conceivable material. From mass produced urns to individual handcrafted works of art, environmental and bio degradable urns are also available. Cremation jewellery varies from small metal pendants that can be place on a necklace to Diamonds made from cremated remains and Italian glass infused with remains all made into beautiful jewellery.
Robert Nelson is a 5th generation funeral director and is Managing Director of Robert Nelson Funerals, based in Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia. Should you have any questions about cremation please do not hesitate to contact me. (03) 9532 2111,
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
A Coroner is a government official who is empowered to conduct or order an inquest into the manner or cause of death and to investigate or confirm the identity of an unknown person who has been found dead within the coroner’s jurisdiction.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coroner
A Transfer is a funeral industry term to describe the process of moving a deceased person from one location to the next, typically from place of death to the funeral home.
“I would have been in my early to mid-teenage years when I did my first coroners transfer, it was during industry work strikes in the 1970s and I did them on my way to school. Memories of some transfers stay with you for life. One of my first, involved a small van with a gas bottle on the roof, slamming into a pole on a major road early one morning. The bottle exploded and the vehicle engulfed in flames. It’s not hard to imagine why these scenes are easily recalled many years later.”
With over 6500 (Coroner Court of Victoria, Annual Report 2017-2018) coronial investigations each year what determines when the coroner is involved and why?
The coroner deals with reportable death. There are the obvious types, Violent, unnatural or unexpected deaths, these include homicide, suicide and drug, alcohol and poison-related deaths. Accident or injury-related deaths such as road fatalities, public transport fatalities, accidental falls, workplace deaths, electrocution, drowning and animal attacks. Where a person,s identity is unknown. The cause of death is not known (the medical practitioner cannot form an opinion about the probable cause of death). Healthcare-related deaths, when someone dies unexpectantly during or after a medical procedure. Deaths of a person who was in custody or care, an inpatient in a mental facility, under care or control of Victorian Police.
The death must be connected to Victoria, the body in Victoria, the death occurred in Victoria, The cause of death occurred in Victoria the person ordinarily resided in Victoria.
Given the large parameters under which death is reportable, it is not hard to see why there are so many cases handled by the Coroner. But why do the coroners investigate matters that to many people would appear to be straight forward and the deaths obvious?
The coroners court has three roles:
Independently investigate deaths and fires
Reduce preventable deaths
Promote public health and safety and the administration of justice
Families first contact is often with a police officer who will inform the next of kin of the death. They will often seek additional information from the family which will be passed onto the coroner. The body is transferred to the Coronial Service Building in Southbank, Melbourne. All Victorian Coronial cases are transferred to this central location.
Whilst at the Coroners a number of things occur.
Identification, confirming the identity of the deceased, may involve visual, medical or scientific processes, including fingerprinting, dental records or blood or DNA.
Forensic Processes, the preliminary process may include, visual examination, collection of personal health information, the taking of bodily fluids, imaging such as CT, Xrays and ultrasound and fingerprints. Often an autopsy (post mortem) is requested. This is performed by a pathologist using techniques similar to a surgical operation. During this process, the major organs of the body are removed and examined and specimens are taken for analysis. The benefit of an autopsy is that it can provide detailed information about the person’s health and condition to give an understanding of the various factors that may have contributed to their death. Even if the cause of death seems clear, the person may have had a medical condition that was not obvious during their life. A family has the right and can request an objection to an autopsy.
Once all the investigations are complete the coroner will issue an “Order for Release”, this enables the body to be released to a funeral director and the funeral performed. Unlike deaths that are not reportable, the full death certificate can take some time before the cause of death is actually known. Your funeral director will guide you and can order an Interim Death Certificate. These look just like a regular death certificate but does not contain the cause of death. Once the coroners office has provided the cause of death to Births Deaths and Marriages a Full Death Certificate can be issued. This can take several months.
Why do some of these processes take so long? With over 6600 investigations each year, the average time to investigate takes 11.8 months? While many associates the coroners with inquests, out of 6500 investigations only 49 inquests were held over that same period of time.
Typically a families involvement with the coroner will be unexpected, it is not one of those things anyone would expect. Your Funeral Director is the best person to contact. They have regular and consistent contact with the coroners office and will arrange for the release of the deceased into their care. Funeral arrangments can occur before the body is released. The body can be expected to remain in their care anywhere from several days to several weeks.
The sudden death of a partner, child family member or friend can be a difficult and painful experience. Families can be assured that today, Victorias Coronial Services Centre is one of the world leaders in Forensic medicine. The practices of yesteryear have long gone, replaced with state of the art facilities and highly trained professionals and skilled staff.
For more information, https://www.coronerscourt.vic.gov.au
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.
Passed, Passed on, Passed Away, At Peace, At Rest, Dead, Die, Died, Killed, Gone to a better place, meet one’s maker. There is an extensive range of words to describe one’s death, some are used to soften the realities of death, others used in a more jocular context.
While funerals and funeral directors deal with the practical aspects of the disposition (burial/cremation) of the deceased. The traditional religious funeral ceremony is usually read from standard or set orders established by those institutions, many do not afford much flexibility in the way these services can be performed.
In recent times there has been a significant swing to the Celebration of Life or End of Life Celebration by many families. Choosing to focus on a person’s life rather than their death. These forms of services take many types, and there are no set rules procedures or processes to follow, and indeed this is possibly why they are becoming so popular.
Everybody has a story to tell – while many people like to play down their accomplishments in life, everybody has led a fascinating and extraordinary life, wholly unique and individual to them. In recent years there has been a resurgence in interest in public and celebrity funerals attracting much attention, and it is easy to think these peoples lives are more extraordinary than our own.
At a time when society is spending more time and money researching ancestry including DNA, it would almost seem logical that more time is now being taken to reflect and celebrate on a life lived. The telling of these stories can come in as many forms as there are stories to tell. For some, the stories will become bigger and more elaborate than reality. But these stories are cast from memory, and this is what makes our stories so unique.
For the professional funeral director, our role just got a whole lot bigger. Not only tasked with dealing with the practical aspects of death but the role of facilitating these extraordinary stories is now added to the myriad of tasks performed by a skilled funeral director.
From organising an appropriate venue, relative to the deceased life, families location and budgets, it is just the beginning of hosting a celebration of life. Matching the celebrant and family is critical for without this the real story cannot be told. A professional celebrant will spend a great deal of time with a family between the death and the funeral. The celebrant’s role can vary considerably for each event. From being the only speaker at the service through to that of an MC and anything else in between. The funeral director will assist the celebrant in creating the framework for the service itself, from, music, audiovisual tributes, speakers and an unlimited range of different tributes and service options throughout the day.
The professional Funeral Director manages all the practical logistical and administrative aspects of the service. These may include multimedia production, filming live streaming, printing, equipment, food, beverages, flowers, musicians, singers, venue hire etc. Indeed with some funerals, the equipment resembles a small television studio or concert performance. The modern-day funeral does not end with the conclusion of the formal service.
Catering has become a significant aspect of the modern funeral. This may be for various reasons, people living in smaller homes or people more accustomed to eating out, or families just not wanting everyone back home. Most major cemeteries now offer a range of high-quality catering options. Many outside venues have also seen the benefits of providing not only wakes but indeed full-service funerals in their establishments. From golf, yacht and bowls clubs, to wineries, gardens and restaurants the list of funeral venues now is proving endless. This has provided the opportunities for many families to have services in locations that have significant meaning for them and the deceased and helps tell the true story of that person.
The professional funeral Director will be there, from the time of death, preparation and care of your loved one through to completing of all final documentation.
In entering peoples lives at this sensitive time, we are privy to much personal information and displays of grief. Yet, at different times during our involvement, different levels of support, guidance and wisdom are required to ensure the entire process is seamless, professional and caring.
Everybody has a story to tell!
Extraordinary funerals for extraordinary people!
Robert Nelson is a 5th generation Funeral Director, with more than 3 decades of experience, he is the owner and founder of Robert Nelson Funerals, based in Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia. Robert Nelson Funerals providing affordable and meaning funerals across all of greater Melbourne and Mornington Peninsula.
Who is your funeral director? Where do they come from? What is their expertise? What does the future hold for the industry and people who work in it?
In previous blogs, I have written about my experience and what led me into the funeral industry. In this blog, I look at some of the changes in the industry in recent decades, giving you insight into who your funeral director might be and how they got into the industry.
There wouldn’t be a day go by someone tells me I’m working in a “bulletproof” industry. They think that because everyone dies, there will always be work for me. It’s not surprising that other people want to be part of what they too believe is a ‘future proof” industry. So, as the industry draws in new people, questions arise as to who these people are, their qualifications and what they contribute to the industry as it changes over time?
The funeral industry has undergone a significant change in my lifetime. I grew up in a time when some funeral directors still manufactured coffins and caskets rather than purchased them from large manufacturers. Many staff came to the industry from the factory floors. Funerals were typically religious. The most significant difference between funerals was whether they were catholic or protestant. Burials were the main form of disposition.
In the 1960s and 70s, with immigration beginning to shift from European countries to also include new arrivals from Asia, we began to see new religions appear. This diversity meant changes particularly in terms of ethnic customs and traditions. Funeral homes had to adapt quickly and most did so quite well.
At this time, few of our new Australians had the desire or will to work within the funeral industry. Over the following few decades, not much changed. Sure there are more new arrivals from a wider range of countries having different traditions and cultures to those we had become accustomed to. This has meant funeral staff have had to acquire a better understanding of the needs of our changing Australian industry and above all else, flexibility.
The funeral industry was changing behind the scenes. Larger family businesses were absorbing traditional family-owned business. The centralisation of mortuaries and garaging enabled significant cost efficiencies. Many smaller family-owned business did not have family members wanting to carry on in the family business. Something not unique to other industries, but with 24 hour 7 day a week commitment, the funeral industry does not have the appeal of many others.
For those starting a career in the funeral industry, there was a hierarchal ascent. Similar to an apprenticeship but without the formality. Staff would begin as a hearse driver working alongside the most experienced member of the team, the conductor. Typically, conductors have years of experience and have undergone a similar “apprenticeship”. Previously, there were very few women in these roles. Indeed there were few women in funeral service altogether.
After a few years working alongside a conductor, the hearse driver would progress to the coach driver, the third person in a funeral crew. The coach driver has the job of collecting and looking after the family on the day of the funeral. The coach driver would then become a conductor, and the cycle would begin again.
Funeral staff would be involved in the delivery of a diverse range of funerals, rosaries, viewing, and other services such as transfers of deceased or body collection from Nursing homes, hospitals or coroners, etc. All staff were required to be on rotational 24/7 after-hours standby for night work. When not doing funerals, staff were involved in coffin preparation, placing handles and writing names plates on coffins and sometimes lining them, there is always cleaning to be performed.
Vehicles are the funeral directors’ mobile shop front, and most companies spent a lot of time ensuring there showpieces were kept immaculate.
Companies varied as to how these processes worked. Some would insist that all conductors were also funeral arrangers while others found that some staff were better at funeral delivery than others.
The mortuary has always been a field on its own. Many funeral staff had no desire or will to work within the mortuary. Larger funeral homes typically had qualified mortuary personnel called embalmers. Smaller companies often had no qualified staff in the mortuary, and they may have had general funeral staff performing necessary mortuary procedures. Some of the larger funeral homes were big supporters of mortuary training and our family business at times had up to 12 or more qualified embalmers on staff. The training and encouragement to train staff has often been attributed to the principals or owners of the business. Those owners that had worked in mortuaries were more likely to encourage training than those that didn’t.
The early embalmers in Australia had either learnt overseas or were part of the early learning with the British Institute of Embalmers. Some funeral homes paid for embalming courses and tuition for their staff. Sadly today this is often not the case, and students are typically required to pay out the hefty course fees on their own. Television shows such as CSI have probably attributed the large numbers of young women now working within our mortuaries.
The 1980s saw the introduction of the large foreign-owned companies become part of the Australian funeral industry, purchasing the larger family-owned groups. As a result, many companies that had often worked and helped each other out from time to time came to see themselves as competitors. The mutual assistance of the past died overnight. Corporatisation had arrived and quickly permeated the market changing the culture of funeral service forever. The traditional family names of the business often remained but the founding principles of many of these business didn’t. The funeral industry, like many others, had moved into a financially driven market.
In the past, the staff knew their employers as well as they knew their own families. Instead, with corporatisation, staff would either change industries or change allegiances based on money. For some, this also appeared to be a lucrative time to enter the industry. Subsequently, we have seen a proliferation of small independent funeral operators enter the market. Some have a laptop, and that’s it.
It is now possible to get trade services in mortuaries, deceased transfers, hire hearse and staff. While there are some excellent trade services around, there are also horror stories of sub-standard quality as the market is increasingly driven by price.
An industry that had once moved to the introduction of nationwide infection control standards often now seems more concerned with the length of time that training might take rather than the benefits these skills may bring. Subsequently, few workers within the industry have ever undertaken any form of training in industry-based occupational health and safety.
Many traditional operators have made calls for industry regulation and or licensing. This is not new, yet there never seems to be any consensus as to what needs to be regulated or how. Often these calls are based on minimum equipment and vehicle standards. It is difficult to find any evidence around the world that in the absence of any of these standards, any risk to public health exists. Often these calls are based on creating barriers to entry to increase start-up costs.
Some say their unscrupulous operators out there. No doubt there is. Yet, in highly regulated professions these unscrupulous operators still exits. So regulation won’t stamp them out.
So who is your funeral director?
Funeral operators are calling themselves many things these days, the latest is a funeral event organiser. Indeed a person may call themselves a funeral director but never handle a deceased. Some of these people may have spent years or even decades in the industry but never had to dress or prepare a deceased. Many of us have heard of instances, where new consultants are given a case and told to see a grieving family on their first day of employment, no experience, no training and no knowledge.
A funeral is made of a broad range of services. Foremost the funeral director is engaged for the disposition of the deceased. For some funeral organisers, this is seen as a minor aspect of their services! Whilst there are many new services, such as catering, printed materials, audiovisual now on offer, we should not lose sight of the reasons a family would engage a funeral director in the first place.
So maybe its time to recognise funeral directors who are skilled qualified and experienced in all aspects of the funeral industry. Not all funeral directors are the same. Many have spent their life perfecting their skills and craft.
Maybe its time to recognise the “Master Undertaker” for their services.
So when you engage a funeral service next time, maybe you should ask a few questions?
Robert Nelson is a fifth-generation Funeral Director and Managing Director of Robert Nelson Funerals based in Melbourne, Australia, he is a member of the British Institute of Embalmers and has studied and worked in funeral service in both Australia and overseas.
The funeral was only 20 minutes away from commencing and my new colleague turned to me and asks, “are you nervous because I am”. I turned to her and said, “no, I’m OK”, I lied.
I met Fred’s (not his real name) family almost a week before, he was terminally ill and had a young family. Fred was in his last days of life. His family had somewhat come to terms with this and were quietly calm in talking about him. Naturally, at times they would need time to compose themselves as they were coming to grips with the finality of his life.
We spoke about what type of funeral service Fred and his family might like and his preference for burial or cremation. We discussed funeral venues and styles of services. I was beginning to get a picture of what the family wanted to do. There would be quite a lot of family travelling from interstate and some from overseas. We left fairly open the choices and would finalise the details when Fred died. But, given Fred’s long illness, the family were keen to ensure the funeral was held quite quickly.
Fred died two days later.
All of a sudden there was a greater sense of urgency by Freds family in organising the funeral. We took Fred,s body into our care and organised all of the appropriate certificates from his attending doctor. A suitable celebrant was selected that we felt would bond well with his family, Coffins, flowers, service time and date for the funeral were all set. There was to be refreshments and catering including an open bar at the venue. The hourglass was now turned and we were on a fixed time to have everything in place for that “hour on the day”.
Over the next few days, there would be dozens of communications, in person, by phone and email conveying all the necessary information to ensure everything went to plan.
Remember how I started this piece when asked if I was nervous just before the funeral, well, it is about this time when I am the most nervous, knowing we have a great deal to achieve and with a limit on the time to do it. There is a golden rule, Plan, Plan, Plan, Plan and then expect things to go wrong and plan for that too. Everything needs a backup plan, so we can expect the unexpected and deal with it even at the last minute.
Behind the scenes, Freds body needs to be prepared and dressed as the family wants to see him the night before the funeral. The coffin has been ordered and delivered and we now have Freds clothing, preparation will take 1-2hrs by skilled qualified staff. The Government Medical officer had visited our mortuary at 2am the night before to finalise cremation documentation. It’s all go, go , go.
Our in house Audiovisual specialist is busy preparing video tributes for the service and the wake following. with over 125 images and 16 tracks of music for the service and wake, there were many hours of work into the night ahead. the service would also be video recorded, so there was a stack of gear we would also be taking along. This is also unpacked, checked and repacked to go.
As we neared the day of the funeral, numbers still had to be finalised for the wake at the venue. What had started out as 60 people had now grown to 125? It’s impossible to guess the actual number of people that will attend, but there is always sufficient food to cover another 50 or more. People don’t generally come for lunch.
By this time our celebrant had met with the family and formed an order for the service now only 48 hours away. She would be in regular contact with them over the following days. The sand in that hourglass was running low.
The family hadn’t yet organised the printed order of service and there was still a potential that we may have to do it at the last moment. Remember Plan and plan for the unexpected.
The family arrived the night before the funeral to see Fred, they were no doubt very sad but pleased they could say their last goodbyes. They advised the order of service was in hand and all would be ready by tomorrow.
The following morning flowers arrived at 4.30am and we arrived at 6am to get the vehicles prepared for the 2pm service. To my aghast, the flowers weren’t quite right. A quick call to our florist and a pick up from the local wholesaler and we were back on track.
All of the audiovisual had been triple checked the night before, but a laptop was left running and you guessed it was doing a new software install. Now, really! Sure enough, it loaded on time and we were now back on track, but now almost no sand left in our hourglass.
With all the gear packed and the hearse carrying Fred all clean and shiny, it was time to head off to the venue, some two hours before the start of the funeral. There was much to set up. On arrival, gear unloaded, set up, venue staff briefed and one hour left before service time, there is now no time to be nervous, we have planned, tested, planned, tested everything.
There were hundreds turn up to Freds funeral. The family loved everything, as much as you can at a funeral. At the conclusion of the service, family and friends stayed behind to chat and have refreshments. we still had Fred to deliver to the crematorium. I would later return to ensure everything was still going well. At 5pm many of the mourners had now left the venue, yet there were still many interstate friends and relatives. A few quick discussions with the venue team and I had another room within the venue sorted and the wake would continue on for many hours to come.
I arrived home, about 8pm a little tired and with a slight smile, maybe of relief that everything had gone to plan and the family happy with our services.
Was it a hectic week for us, possibly, but what I didn’t tell you is we also dealt with a number of other families at the same time. It matters not to them, that we have other families or clients, everyone is special and everyone deserves to treated like they are the only person we are dealing with.
Next time you see us for that hour on the day, remember our day may have started days ago.
Robert Nelson is a 5th generation Funeral Director. His company Robert Nelson Funerals is based in Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia. He provides Meaningful, Affordable Funerals across Melbourne and the Mornington Peninsula.