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?

Ram

Ram

Grief is the response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or some living thing that has died, to which a bond or affection was formed. Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, grief also has physical, cognitive, behavioural, social, cultural, spiritual and philosophical dimensions.” Wikipedia

Ram was a 12 year old German Shepherd dog.

A few months ago I received a call from a client I had helped almost a year ago. They were Hindu and had followed strict Hindu customs and rituals for their relative with a funeral service in their home followed by witnessing the cremation.

During the call Marla, Rams owner described how their beloved German Shepherd was in his final stages of life. Ram had been part of the family and was as such treated as a member of the family. Marla wanted to ensure that when Ram passed he was given the same dignity, solemnity and ritual that they would afford any other member of their family.

The family wanted a special coffin made, just like for any person and wished to have a Hindu service from home.

Early one morning a week later I received the call that Ram was in pain and needed to be euthanised. It was not an easy choice, but given his pain, the decision had to be made.

I met the family at the local vet. Ram was surrounded by his beloved family as he quickly and peacefully slipped away. We hastily organised a specially made coffin for Ram, with full lining and handles and the next day met at the family home to afford Ram his last farewell and Hindu customs.

The service ran for almost an hour as the family meticulously went about ensuring Ram was given all the courtesy any family member would have been given. At the end of the service, they carefully closed his coffin and Ram was conveyed to the pet crematorium for cremation.

While this is a beautiful story of love and loss, it demonstrates how grief is not restricted to human loss. We all experience grief differently and sometimes it can be hard to understand or support each other. People of different ages and cultures will grieve in different ways. Many of us have experienced the loss of our pets and some wonder why we may grieve more for them than we did for close family members. There is no right and wrong in the way we grieve.

For those struggling to cope with grief there is help and support available.

Professional support can assist you in providing a listening ear and also provide support or other resources that may be useful to you at this time

Robert Nelson Funerals provides complimentary bereavement support to all its clients.

Families may also choose to contact The Grief Centre

www.griefcentre.com.au or phone 1300 270 479

Thank to Rams family for providing and allowing me to use these images.

Professional Funeral Director What Does it mean? Part 2

Students must start in the classroom

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?

Embalming

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.

Infection control

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:

Ethics

Infection Control

Basic Manual Handling – Coffins, Transfers, equipment

An Introduction to Death Grief and Bereavement

Coronial & Donor Tissue Bank Induction

Funeral Industry, Certificate, Forms and Documentation

Cemetery/Crematorium Induction

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

The A – Z Guide Of CREMATION

Hindu Holy Man

My forebearers were involved in some of the early cremations on the cremation pyres of the Ballarat goldfields in the 1800s. Much has changed in the way we cremate and societies views on it.

Today, cremation accounts for almost 60% of all disposition in Victoria (Births Death Marriages Victoria July 2020 – September 2020). With so many people choosing cremation over burial, How much do we really know what happens behind the scenes?

In Victoria, all crematoriums must be on cemetery land, and all cemeteries are on crown land, so unlike other states and other countries, Victoria does not have private crematoria. In states and countries that do have private cremation, there is a significant difference in fees. In the report commissioned by the Victorian Government “Victorian Cremation Industry Viability” by Marsden Jacob Associates 2004, “the cremation price is a small proportion of the overall cost to the bereaved and is unlikely to affect the burial/cremation decision. The bereaved are generally more concerned with the total package price.” This would seem to contradict what has occurred to fees in a market where private operators exist.

With an increasing number of funeral operators offering low cost , direct or unattended services the cremation cost can account for more than 50% of the overall fees.

So how do these private crematorium function?

In most place throughout the world, the crematorium is located in the rear of the funeral home and operated by the funeral director, Fees can be up to 50% lower than those currently charged by public crematoria.

How do most people see cremation?

People on a regular basis tell me how they have been into the crematorium and witnessed the cremation. While this is possible most mourners will only get as close as the crematorium chapel. Most crematoria in Victoria have chapels and function areas that are separate from the crematorium. Mourners will normally attend the chapel for the service and at the conclusion, the funeral the coffin turn from view or is lowered out of sight. Some cremators are located directly behind the chapels. The coffin is removed from the catafalque (the lowering device) and will await cremation. In other instance, the coffin is loaded into a vehicle and transported a few hundred metres to the crematorium building. the cremation may occur immediately but in some case will occur the following day.

Witnessing Cremation

With an increasing number of Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist families in Melbourne, the cultural requirement to witness the cremation has increased and more families are requesting this option. Don’t be surprised, that the crematorium charges a fee for families to witness the cremation of their loved one.

In many countries that our new Australians come from, the service would often be held in front of the cremation chamber. In Melbourne, small numbers of the family either watch the cremation on a video screen in an adjoining room or witness the coffin entering the cremator behind a glass window. The process for families is quick. The coffin is loaded onto a special device that will discharge the coffin into the cremator. The doors of the cremators remain closed until that family is ready. Once settled, the family will indicate to the cremation operator to proceed. The door slides up and the coffin is quickly injected into the cremator. The door is quickly closed. Families will leave after this. The whole process may take less than a minute.

The cremation itself takes 1-2 hours.

Ashes or cremated remains

The terms ashes tend to infer the cremated remains are like cinder, very light and like powder, however, most people are surprised when the cremated remains are returned. Ashes are skeletal remains and the average cremated remains urn will weigh approximately 3kg. Typically remains will be ready for collection within 48 hours after cremation.

Is the coffin cremated or reused?

Absolutely not. The coffin as you see it is not opened once entered the crematorium building.

Do I need to use a coffin at all for cremation?

While some crematorium now accepts non-coffin cremation the deceased still needs to enter the crematorium in a sealed container and be on a solid base. The body is usually wrapped in a cotton shrouds similar to the way Muslims would bury their loved ones and secured to a plantation pine cremation bearer. Some feel this is a good environmental option.

No Coffin Cremation using a cremation bearer

What can I place in the coffin?

Unlike burial, there are restrictions what you can place in a coffin for cremation. Batteries are definitely not to be included (due to the possibility of explosions) and the funeral director will sign a declaration that any pacemakers have been removed. Excessive plastics should be avoided and bottles are now on the band list due to effect they can have on cremated remains. Bodies can be dressed as normal.

Can I use a cardboard coffin?

Yes, there is special cardboard coffins known as Bio board.

You can learn more about the bio board here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwA4pp9vLTQ&t=1s

Do I need to have a service with the cremation?

No, many people are choosing to have a direct or unattended cremation. The body and coffin are taken directly to the crematorium without anyone attending. Many families choose to have some other celebration of life event, from a very private personal scattering of cremated remains in meaningful locations with a few people, to large elaborate and often noisy lunches. There are no rights and wrongs when it comes to celebrating a life, just relevant and meaningful events. So the choices are all yours to make

Can we seperate cremated remains for different members of our family?

Yes, just ask your funeral director and he will arrange this for you.

Cremation Urns, Jewellery, Scattering tubes

There is a large range of options open to families to choose from in deciding with what to do with cremated remains. There are literally thousands of different types of cremation urns, made from every conceivable material. From mass produced urns to individual handcrafted works of art, environmental and bio degradable urns are also available. Cremation jewellery varies from small metal pendants that can be place on a necklace to Diamonds made from cremated remains and Italian glass infused with remains all made into beautiful jewellery.

Robert Nelson is a 5th generation funeral director and is Managing Director of Robert Nelson Funerals, based in Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia. Should you have any questions about cremation please do not hesitate to contact me. (03) 9532 2111,

COVID-19?

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.

February 2020

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%)

https://www.indexmundi.com/australia/death_rate.html

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.”

In Australia

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)

image.png

  • 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)

Personal Protective Equipment is Vital
The wearing of personal protective equipment is vital equipment behind the scenes in the funeral industry

Containment of the body in a sealed bag
Body Bags appear to have been useful in containment after death

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.

IMG_5606 copy
Funeral Live Streaming

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 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.

 

 

Choosing Your Funeral Venue

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.

Adorable Katering
Wakes can be anywhere, from your home to selected venues, food choices can be important for many

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.

Sandringham Yacht Club
Sandringham Yacht Club, over incredible views across Port Phillip Bay

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:

  1. Ensure you use a funeral professional with the skill and ear to listen to what you want from the day.
  2. Choose services and locations that are relevant to you and your family.
  3. Services can be held at any time, day, evening weekends, so choose a time that is relevant
  4. Don’t choose services based on what you think you must have or have had before.
  5. 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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

An Hour On The Day…. Hardly!

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.

Robert nelson Funerals
Robert Nelson Funerals

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.

Audio Visual
Audio Visual

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.

Coffin Flowers
Flowers by Gradiflora

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.

Springvale Botanical Cemetery - Function Rooms
Springvale Botanical Cemetery – Function Rooms

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.

 

When a holiday turn to Tragedy

Interstate  or overseas holiday travel can be such a fun and exciting time. New cultures, new experiences rest and relaxation for some some, exciting adrenalin fuelled activities for others. But what happens when fun turns to tragedy?

Australians are avid overseas travellers, with over 9 million Australian taking overseas trips each year. in  2016/17 1,600 Australians died overseas. These figures are only set to rise.

Emergency
Danger on the street. Blue flasher on the police car at night.

Organising repatriation or funeral services on your own overseas can be complex and expensive when you don’t know what you are doing.  In some countries the law and bureaucracy can also complicate the expediency of handling an untimely death. Despite the deceased having an Australian passport we are bound by the laws of the country we are visiting and this can be a confronting situation when families are distressed in shock and or grieving.

Robert Nelson, of Robert Nelson Funerals said “in one case we handled a few years ago the person died on a remote Island in Greece in the middle of summer. There was no refrigeration and no chance to get the person off the island for days. A large fish tank was seconded from a restaurant and turned into an ice box until the body could be transferred to Athens before coming back to Australia.”

Should death occur overseas the first point of contact is your insurer. They will be able to advise you of your entitlements. You should be mindful that simply having travel insurance does not guarantee your claim will be accepted. Most travel policies have extensive terms and conditions. Illegal or some extreme activities, riding or driving while under the influence may also result in the insurer rejecting the claim.

Once the insurer has accepted the claim, they generally work with assistance companies that provide advise and assist with organising the funeral or repatriation services. These companies in turn work with specialist in house funeral companies to provide on ground services and expertise.

The family will need to make a choice of having a burial or cremation in the country of death or repatriate the body back to Australia.

Body Repatriation is a highly specialised field and is best handled by experienced competent professionals. Many countries do not have the type, style or standard of funeral service or body storage that many might be expected in Australia.

All bodies being repatriated by air back to Australia will need to be fully embalmed. In Australia this is generally performed by members of the Australian or British Institute of Embalmers. Overseas it may be performed by doctors or universities and is not a normal procedure in funeral service in those countries. The quality and standard of preparation can be less than satisfactory.

Preparation by Skilled Professionals
Preparation by Skilled Professionals

The despatching funeral service will organise , collection of the body, all necessary local documentation, a specialised and hermetically sealed coffin, suitable for air transfer. They will liaise with their own government authorities for death and health certificates and other formal documentation that may be required. In addition they will work with the Australian Consul within that country as well as Airlines and Customs brokers.

These processes cannot occur overnight and you would expect some delay before the body can be returned home. This can add to the distress of families back home.

Robert says, “in a case we dealt with in the North of England the Coroner only worked in that town once a week and we had to wait for more than week before the coroner could commence their investigation.”

Loading to the aircraft 1,600 Aussies die overseas each year
Busy day at the airport. 1,600 Aussies die overseas each year

Before arrival home the family will have needed to contract a local funeral service provider, who will arrange for the collection of the coffin from the airport on arrival and clearance from Australian Customs. The local funeral director will then organise local documentation for burial or cremation, this may also take a number days to organise.

So what happens when you are not insured or the insurer will not accept your claim?

You will be left to organise all of this on your own. Be mindful there are specialists in international repatriation in Australia that have strong connections throughout the world. you should use these resources in order to save you time and avoiding over payment.

When death occurs away from home but in Australia thing are a little different. When death occurred interstate most bodies used to be flown home. This entailed using a funeral director at the place of death and another in your home town. It can be quite costly.  Whilst this still happens today, most bodies are road transported by specialist crews and vehicles. This mean they can collect the body from the hospital or coroner and transport directly to the home town funeral director. Generally this is seen as the most expedient and cost effective solution.

There is no doubt when death occurs away from home and often in sudden and unexpected ways it adds to the trauma of the situation. However, behind the scenes their are teams of dedicated, skilled, professionals working around the clock to ensure your loved ones are returned as quickly as possible.

Robert is a fifth generation funeral director and Managing Director of Robert Nelson Funerals in Melbourne, Australia. He is a member of the British Institute of Embalmers and skilled in International and Interstate repatriation service. he has strong connections in this field throughout the world