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
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
As with nearly everything these days, people across the world are becoming environmentally aware. Funerals are no different. With the increasing number of funeral homes that are now offering environmental options we thought it was a good idea to look more closely as to what environmental options are available and take a closer look at just how environmental they might actually be and let you make your own mind up.
Burial v Cremation
Cremation into the future
Throughout the world there has been increased interest about Alkaline Hydrolysis, a safe and eco friendly alternative to flame cremation or burial. Alkaline Hydrolysis uses water instead of fire. With claims of 90% less energy used than flame cremation and 0% emissions of harmful greenhouse gases. On the surface, this process looks like it could be a great environmental alternative to conventional cremation. Yet, with Alkaline Hydrolysis taking approximately two days, against flame cremation taking only a few hours, there may still be some way to go in this area before its taken up as a total viable alternative.
Cremation is the preferred option in Victoria where more people in suburban areas choose cremation as distinct from burial. It should be noted that burial in Victoria is for perpetuity, meaning that the burial has no ending and the grave will be there forever. (in other states and countries throughout the world, burial is limited in tenure, where graves will be reused). Regular maintenance is required for each grave including lawn graves. With over 560 cemeteries in Victoria alone (National Competition Policy review of The Cemeteries Act 1958 Victoria), there is considerable maintenance required. Many of these cemeteries are now closed (full). It should be noted that a component of cremation fees subsides the ongoing maintenance cost of cemeteries.
So I guess in considering the environmental impact of burial, ongoing maintenance should be taken into consideration.
Cardboard v Timber Coffins or caskets
As funeral directors, we are constantly asked why don’t we use cardboard coffins?
Cardboard coffins are available. There is little difference in cost between cardboard and particle board and some funeral directors complain about the structural integrity of the cardboard coffins, when exposed to either moisture or refrigeration. Some crematoria have made comment that more fuel is required in the cremation process when using cardboard, where as a timber coffin aids in the cremation process.
Perhaps an alternative is the wicker coffin.
Hand woven, using renewable materials. These types of coffins are now readily available in Australia, albeit are imported from overseas.
Most coffins caskets have combustible (plastic) fittings, including, handles, name plates and crucifix. Some coffins still have metal fixtures. funeral directors have often been accused of reusing coffins and fittings, however in a highly regulated state likes ours (Victoria, Australia) it is simply not possible. However, most of our crematoriums here do actually remove the fixtures, not for reuse, but for environmental purposes. The fixtures are repurposed, but not reused. Interesting only the other day client asked me why they can’t be reused?
Vehicles and fuel efficiency
Most funeral vehicles are still petrol or diesel and to my knowledge no-one has yet moved to an environmental alternative.
Embalming and Body Preparation
There has been much written and said about the copious amounts of chemicals funeral directors use. Whilst it may make a great story, there is little evidence to support it. Basic body preparation requires little to no chemicals. The types of chemical used in basic preparation may equate to disinfection of the equipment. These chemicals are similar to what can be found in any household.
Full embalming does however use some speciality product, but the quantity is small. The types of chemicals varies considerably and more embalming fluid manufactures are taking into account OH&S and the environment in developing new products.
In Australia few companies embalm every body. Those companies that do embalm, do so for a reason, so before running out and deciding you don’t need embalming, talk to your funeral director first. The total amount of embalming fluid used is probably not that significant. Presently there is no other alternatives to embalming.
The Final Word
So, where does that leave the funeral industry and those that are wanting an environmental alternatives?
At this stage, you will probably have to make your own mind up about what you think is the best choices, but just be aware, that because a funeral service is marketed as “Environmental” doesn’t necessary mean it is.