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:
Basic Manual Handling – Coffins, Transfers, equipment
An Introduction to Death Grief and Bereavement
Coronial & Donor Tissue Bank Induction
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