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.
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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
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.