So you want to be a funeral director?

I this your next funeral Director

“Hello Robert, and what is you do?”

“I am a funeral director”

“A film director that’s great!”

That is often the comment I get when introducing myself to new people. It hasn’t escaped me that people seem to think a film director is possibly more common than a funeral director. Indeed many people have never met a funeral director. Given this, it is hardly surprising few people know the reality of who we are and what we do. It is not as if death and dying is a hot topic of conversation around most dinner tables at night.

Death and dark humour are often funny at least while they don’t affect you, but when its personal or you have recently experienced loss its becomes a rather different matter. A funeral director constantly walks that fine line, often the butt of humour, but knowingly aware of the reality they see on a daily basis. While many may laugh there will often be people in the room that just don’t see that funny side, as its just too raw.

We all have our vision of what we perceive to be a funeral director. Dark colours, typically black, black suit, black vehicles and so on. These stem from the Edwardian era of the early 1900s, yet still remain the benchmark for many funeral directors throughout the world today, with top hats or black coats, still common in many place’s. Odd, when we stop to think about it, I thought we now celebrate lives?

Edwardian man in long black coat and hat holding cane.

I remember my mum having bumper stickers printed, “Have you hugged your funeral director today” something she did everyday, for others it made them think. Maybe we are just your average people, performing an an extra ordinary job.

With such a stereotype of what a funeral director is or should be, it’s possibly no wonder that our profession is not on top of, or even on the page of potential occupations when leaving school.

So when your son or daughter says, “mum, I want to be a funeral director” where do they begin ?

You would be forgiven for thinking that those wanting to enter the funeral industry are older people, typically men. The greatest number enquiries we receive are from young under eighteen year old women. The majority of these wish to work in body preparation with deceased in the mortuary. Maybe many of the forensic tv crime shows have something to answer for this.

There is good argument that before you enter the funeral industry you should have some life experience and despite what people think we do, a funeral directors role is mostly working with the living. Indeed, one of the first questions you should ask yourself is what what will I be doing on a day to day basis if I am successful in getting role in the funeral industry? When I ask candidate this most have no idea! “Help people,” “well yes, but the sandwich shop lady also helps me with my lunch”. What is we really do?

The best way for a budding funeral director to find this out is to go and talk to a funeral director and ask them what they do on a daily basis, long before you ever front for an interview. A funeral directors role will vary considerably, based on the size of the company they work for. Most larger business will have specified tasks assigned to staff. Some may only work in the mortuary, while others may just perform deceased transfers from hospitals , homes, aged care and coroners. Yet, others may assist at funerals or work with families making funeral arrangements or a combination both. There are funeral coordinators who manage logistics of all vehicles, staff and deceased.

removing ppe in the mortuary
Removing PPE in the mortuary

In a small funeral home you may be all of these things and more.

New recruits are often surprised as to how much cleaning is involved. There is nothing that is not cleaned on a daily basis, inclduing vehicles, equipment, premises or yourself, getting ready to meet the public. Many potential recruits will often say they are prepared to do this, to start at the bottom. But, this is the daily life of a funeral director and those not prepared to do this long term will become quickly bored.

I would love to say people only die between 9am – 5pm Monday to Friday, but this is not, and will never be the case. Most funeral homes require staff to work some after hours component. These could be 24 hour on call transfer crew, after hours funeral arranger or coordinator , taking phone calls around the clock or attending evening Rosary, viewing or prayer services. A clear drug and alcohol clear mind is essential to perform these functions, so if you are a party animal, maybe this industry is not for you.

You should be of good health and be able to lift and carry. This will be required, on transfers, funerals, and at cemeteries.

By now, you have visited your local funeral home, spoke with the staff, read my article and still haven’t been turned off.

There are few courses you can do to enter the funeral inductor and of those that do exist often require you to be employed in the funeral industry.

A full motor vehicle licence is essentials you will be required to drive motor vehicles. Some these vehicles may be worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars and once damaged a replacement cannot be hired from the local car rental company, so a good driving history is important

Mortuary and Funeral Educators (MFE) along with Funeral Industry Development Australia (FIDA) are both based in Melbourne and both teach Certificate IV courses in Mortuary Science Embalming. MFE is currently developing an online module in infection control for general funeral staff

There are registered courses in funeral operations and funeral services, yet few Registered Training Organisations (RTO) would seem to teach them and even fewer business requiring them as an entry to work.

Our profession works with grieving families and special skills are required in understanding grief and loss, “The Grief Centre” offers online and training for funeral professionals in Australia and New Zealand.

Still want to be a funeral director?

Robert Nelson Funerals Partners with The Grief Centre

Grief and bereavement support at Robert nelson Funerals
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

angry

relived

depressed or lonely

resentful

guilty

confused and forgetful

overwhelmed

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

Professional Funeral Director What Does it mean? Part 1

Proper Structured Funeral Training a key to

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: 

1. Conductor

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

How do you see things?

Funeral Pre Planning

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, as if 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.

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COVID restriction has 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,

When The Coroner Calls

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

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.

Warehouse workers after an accident in a warehouse.
An accident in a warehouse.

Fatal motorcycle accident
Automotive Fatalities

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:

  1. Independently investigate deaths and fires
  2. Reduce preventable deaths
  3. 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.

Medical Research
Forensic Scientific Investigations

Blood test tubes in centrifuge. Medical laboratory concept.
Body Fluid Testing

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.

 

 

The Hearse

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.

IMG_4960

 

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.

IMG_4634 (1)

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.

IMG_5232

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.

IMG_5253

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.

IMG_5086

The people mover van provides a great alternative to expensive full customisation of the funeral vehicle and at a fraction of the cost.

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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.