Are you the glass half full type of person or the glass half empty? I guess at times we are both.
Recently I was pre-arranging a funeral for a client, her elderly mother in the final stages of life and sadly like many with dementia. She hadn’t seen her mother or held or hand for many months, COVID restrictions saw to that. On the surface, it just appeared to be a very sad situation.
As we began to talk and I started to learn a little about her mum, my client described how her mother had always been full of fun and laughter and these are the memories she would carry with her, not the sad ones.
She told me a story of when her mother in her 70s and wheelchair-bound, but still full of life had an appointment with her neurologist. The prognosis wasn’t good and the specialist explained to her mum the ramifications of her diseases. She sat quietly in her chair as he explained as well as he could what to expect. After he had finished talking she sat silently for a few minutes. Concerned, the doctor walked over to her chair and knelt in front of her. Her eyes suddenly lit up, like a light bulb had just been switched on as she casually queried the doctor, “would sex therapy help?” Startled but as quick-witted as her, the doctor fired back “well, do you have someone in mind?” with that twinkle still in her eye she replied, “do you have a younger brother?” Needless to say, the room erupted in laughter.
It got me to thinking, even at the worst of times, it is the way in which we choose to deal with a situation which will dictate the manner in which we move forward.
COVID restriction have unquestionably thrown great hardship on many people. For me I have been amazed at the manner in which families have accepted and dealt with loss during this time.
So maybe next time you are faced with what seems an insurmountable challenge in life, remembering the story of my elderly client might just bring a smile to your face and maybe assist you in looking at your situation in another way,
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
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.
When choosing where to have a funeral your choices have now grown.
Restaurants, bars, reception centres, wineries, gardens, sports clubs, private homes the choices are now only limited by your imagination.
Funerals have always traditionally been held in churches however as society becomes more secular it would appear that many are putting great thought into the meaning and relevance of the funeral and naturally where it should be held. Since the 1960s funeral homes had become an alternative to the church and whilst many families still opted for misters or priests, the funeral didn’t seem to have the church like feel that the traditional church service did. At the same time, many churches would not allow the coffin to be opened within the church in order for families to say their last goodbyes, The funeral home provided greater flexibility.
From the 1980-s funeral homes began to offer simple refreshment services, typically tea, coffee sandwiches etc, the type of food you may have received in a church hall. Indeed some funeral homes around Australia began to offer licencing options. This was seen as quite a provocative move and created much discussion, but move forward a few decades and licensed venues are now almost seen as a prerequisite for many mourners.
The 90s began to see technology take hold. Where once music options may have been an organist or piano and hymns, more contemporary music options were becoming more common. Filming and live streaming of funerals was now available and starting to appear in many funeral homes. Simple framed pictures were now being replaced by full-blown audiovisual productions.
Technology has provided many additional opportunities for families, but the rate of technological change has been a double-edged sword. The cost of maintaining the latest equipment has been burdensome and expensive for many funeral homes, who were not geared for this.
Enter the function venues, facilities which were often idle, not having any daytime or weekday events, many of which have relished at the opportunity of doing either funerals, memorial services or wakes. The coffin once seen as almost taboo to have anywhere else other than a church or funeral home is now often accepted into these venues without any concern. Perhaps this reflects the changing way in which the community now sees funeral service and greater comfort when services are held in places with more meaning and relevance to mourners.
Most Melbourne Crematoriums have now undergone significant refurbishment, installing state of the art audiovisual equipment, refreshment lounges and large commercial kitchens and executive chefs, sourced from some of the countries finest catering companies. One large cemetery trust is serving approximately 3000 meal portions a day to mourners. Indeed some of the cemeteries now provide functions to those outside of the funeral circle, including weddings, corporate events etc.
Although there has been a significant increase in alternate funeral venue locations, the church still holds a pivotal focus for many families. The key to the selection of a funeral venue is relevance and meaning and without consideration of these two factors, the funeral can sometimes seem hollow to some.
Finally, there are those that do not wish to celebrate or commemorate in a formal way and the rise of unattended or direct cremation is increasing at a rapid rate. we have all heard someone say, “don’t fuss over me, just bury me in a cardboard box”. For many, this has now become a reality. However, burial is not normally the chosen form of disposition in Melbourne, cremation is.
So why are families choosing unattended cremation services? For some, it is cost as it is the lowest cost option available, but for most, it is the simplest and least complicated types of services. Many families still have some type of service or event after the cremation and the can diverse, from large memorial services to small intimate lunches.
So in planning your funeral event location here are some key guides:
Ensure you use a funeral professional with the skill and ear to listen to what you want from the day.
Choose services and locations that are relevant to you and your family.
Services can be held at any time, day, evening weekends, so choose a time that is relevant
Don’t choose services based on what you think you must have or have had before.
Keep in mind the number of mourners likely to attend
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.
If I were to ask you to transport a box approximately 6 foot in length 18 inches high and 18 inches wide in your station wagon, you would quickly discover it probably doesn’t fit, and you would need to source a different mode of transport. The box, as described, is a standard size coffin in the Australian Funeral Industry and yes the Australian Funeral Industry still uses station wagons, but with a twist?
The Australian hearse is typically built from a station wagon body, the vehicle is cut and extended, and the roof also removed and heightened to accommodate the range of different coffin sizes and flowers. These vehicles include Fords, Holdens, Mercedes Benz, Rolls Royce, you name it most makes of vehicles have been made into hearses. With extensions and vehicle customisations, the hearse can easily cost between $200,000 – 300,000 dollars.
So why is it that the funeral industry hasn’t considered using vehicles that don’t require this level of customisation and cost?
Australian funeral customs have primarily come from English funeral traditions. Of course in more recent decades, immigration has altered some of these traditions. Historically English churches often had graveyards within the church grounds. The coffin was simply carried from the church to the graveside. However, when the coffin needed to be transported further, a hearse was used.
My forebearers first started out on the Ballarat goldfields and as carpenters would later become furnishing undertakers. In the 1850s it was still a long way off from the automobile being invented. The horse and carriage was the transport of the day. The funeral carriage were all customs made from wood and glass, few were identical, yet all were black. Many of those with glass panels had either etched or gold gilded embellishments and others would be adorned with a crucifix or cross, symbolic of either an Anglican or Catholic Funeral. The engines were the horses, usually baring their black feather plumes and harness.
In the early part of the new century, vehicles quickly began to appear in the funeral cortege behind the horse-drawn carriages, and it didn’t take long before the horse was replaced with the automobile. From a child, I was told that the body of the horse-drawn carriage was placed onto the back of the car or ute, creating the new hearse.
Over the years, the vehicles have modernised and changed in shape and style, and the hearse body has become more stylised. Yet, one thing that has remained is the glass window sides.
Hearses around the world vary, some countries prefer clear glass-sided vehicles while others, including America, prefer a discreet view of the coffin. Some countries use Vans, with various degrees of modifications. There are evens small buses that can carry the coffin and family mourners. Although black is seen as the colour of mourning in most countries hearses can be any colour.
Of course, there are many specialty or even novelty type vehicles, these include Motorcycles with sidecars to carry the coffin, I have recently seen a Land Rover Defender, firetrucks, aged and historic cars, farm utes and trucks.
So what is the way forward and what might the vehicles of the future look like. We know that many vehicle manufacturers are moving away from the manufacture of station wagons, and there is a greater emphasis on smaller and greener vehicles.
With Cremation now accounting for 60-70% of all funerals, the funeral cortege is also less frequent as many families now choose to have single service funerals, where the hearse plays no significant role in the funeral process as there is no procession to the cemetery.
The people mover van provides a great alternative to expensive full customisation of the funeral vehicle and at a fraction of the cost.
As consumers across the board, yes including funeral service become more cost-conscious, all aspect of the funeral industry need to be reviewed for relevancy and cost-effectiveness. The hearse is a significant cost of the overall funeral cost.
So next time you see a hearse on the road, you may have a different view as to its relevancy.
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.
Food has often played a significant role in funerals and services associated around death. In modern Australia, the choice of food venue and drinks plays a vital role in funeral planning for many. Whilst our more secular society may be gravitating to alternate funeral venues, traditionalist also considers refreshments to be an important part of the funeral ritual.
Many church funerals often concluded with tea and coffee in the church hall following the formal proceedings of the funeral. Often supplied by the church ladies who may have also made all their own cakes and sandwiches. These events we have seen to be an important part of an extended family get-togethers, where family and friend who had not seen each other for many years had the opportunity to reconnect. Many families would alternatively choose to have these events at the family home.
As homes have gotten smaller and our society drifts away from the church, the funeral home had begun to replace the church setting and indeed some funeral homes not only have their own commercial kitchens but supply fully licensed services.
Possibly the biggest change has been in many of the larger cemetery/crematoriums building purpose-built refreshment rooms and commercial kitchens. Southern Metropolitan Cemetry Trust (SMCT), which operates Springvale and Bunurong Cemeteries has possibly the most expansive catering set up. With thousands of meal portions served each day, families are clearly welcoming the concept.
In Melbournes restaurant, cafe-style culture everyone is a critic in this highly competitive food market and SMCT clearly tick all the right boxes in both quality of their offering in both food and facilities. With Asian, Greek, Italian, Sri Lankan, Vegan, Gluten-Free themed options families are able to tailor events to set their requirements. From as little as 20 mourners to 100s in attendance, these rooms are proving very popular.
Outside of the funeral environment, other venues have identified new markets and clients are relating many of these venues are offering an extremely cost-effective alternative to the traditional funeral environments of funeral homes, cemeteries and churches.
From Bowls and Golf clubs to Yacht Clubs, Wineries and gardens, restaurants and function centres, many of these venues now offer funerals (yes with coffin present) and refreshments options. The prestigious Sandringham Yacht Club, located on the edge of Port Phillip Bay has become the venue of choice for those who have a nautical bent or just love the water. With Food and beverage packages to suit, the venue provides the ideal alternative to traditional establishments.
Although many of us love to eat food, some cultures incorporate food into the ceremonial aspects of the funeral. Hindu and Buddhist families have food offerings on their alters during the service. After the funerals, some cultures will have light refreshments at the graveside, where highly potent home liquor and food may be offered to guests immediately after which families will return home for a much larger feast.
Yet what does the future hold? With Uber eats a new phenomena, will this be the way forward. Perhaps it is no surprise then that SMCT will shortly be offering to take home food options for families from their kitchens. SMCT says ” We understand that self-care may not always be top of mind for visitors who have recently experienced the loss of a loved one. Our take-home meals have been created to help provide support and care to our community during this time.”
Oh, and don’t forget while you are devouring that gorgeous pie and your next funeral, take time to remember why you are there.
To get information on funeral venues and funeral options contact Robert Nelson Funerals ph (03) 9532 2111
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.
Last month I wrote about environmental options within the funeral service. This week I came across possibly one of the most sensible environmental options available and its been right in front of us all the time!
Coffin manufacturing has changed a great deal over the past century, I remember my grandfather making coffins from solid timber and without modern manufacturing techniques had to use hot water in order to bend the shoulders into coffins. Paper laminates, custom and particle board just didn’t exist. Polishing or finishing was applied often by hand, using traditional french polishing techniques.
In today’s coffin manufacturing environment, high tech is the way to go, with computerised cutting machines and a variety of timber variants available. Yet , whilst the manufacturing techniques may have changed, there is still waste from offcuts and damaged timbers or veneers that typically end up in a landfill.
Innovative family-owned Melbourne coffin manufacturer RH Minter has decided to do something about it. They are repurposing what was once waste into environmental low-cost affordable coffins. While these unpolished rectangular coffins, sometimes have different panels and are possible not for every family (in regard to traditional looks) they definitely lead the way in environmental repurposing.
Managing Director of Robert Nelson Funerals, says “families now have a real alternative when considering environmental options and even better it locals that are doing it.”
“Compared to cardboard, that has to be manufactured, (often overseas) these timber offcuts are already in the local factory and would be shipped out for landfill if not reused.”
Robert Nelson Funerals are pleased to offer these environmental repurposed coffins as part of our standard range.
Call Robert Nelson Funerals for further information. Ph (03) 9532 2111