Changing face of the funeral industry – from an insider

A decade ago, when I was a freelance journalist, I struggled badly when newspapers went into serious decline. It seemed likely that all newspapers, certainly my main supporter, The Age in Melbourne, would go out of business. I tried my hand at all sorts of nefarious pursuits before deciding to have a go in the funeral industry. Now I feel as if I’ve landed in the ‘Lucky Casket’. I’ll certainly never lose work because I’m too old.

In case you’re wondering, I’m 58. In the funeral industry, life experience does help. I was a funeral director for almost a year. Now, I’m a funeral celebrant. It’s a cliché, but I relish the chance to help families in their hour of need.

Although families will always grieve after the loss of a loved one, many find the week or so that leads up to a funeral to be a rewarding time. Relatives come together – in some cases after not seeing each other for years. They chat and tell stories. They celebrate the occasion, especially if the life of the deceased was long and fulfilling. It’s only towards the end of the funeral, as the curtain is drawn across, or the coffin is led away, that the reality of the mourners’ loss becomes apparent.

Divided families are not so blessed. Those on one side of the split would prefer to have nothing to do with those on the other side, but the unavoidable reality of an impending funeral forces them to come together. The amazing thing to me is that such families almost always drop their disputes momentarily in respect for the deceased. They get along just long enough. The chapel might be rent with tension, but everyone behaves – or mostly behaves.

Working in the industry

When others learn that I work in the funeral industry, I get two responses. Half of those who hear the news are terrified at the notion of dealing with death. They ask whether my job is morbid. The other half, the ones of more soulful disposition, express interest – even fascination. I tell both camps that my work is life-affirming. The occurrence of death brings us alive. Those grieving often give the best of themselves. It is life at its most raw.

I’ll give an illustration.

Once, I was the conductor of a funeral for a man who had six sons. The youngest explained to me that, as death approached, his father was unable to get to the toilet himself. His son had to carry him.

For those final few days of his life, the father cried on his son’s shoulder, having surrendered to his helplessness. The son found his father’s surrender to be profoundly moving. Whereas the son had started life in his father’s arms, now he was carrying his father.

After the father had died, his six sons gathered around their father to dress him for the funeral service. All six were big men. I was astonished at how gently they lifted their father to put on his trousers; how carefully they raised his arms to put on his shirt. The brothers spoke quietly. They worked together. Sometimes they laughed. It was not all solemn.

Lighter moments

The funeral business does provide lighter moments, at least for those working in it.

I knew I had grown more comfortable with the facts of life and death during an afternoon when I was moving several deceased around the mortuary in an attempt to create room for the incoming. In most mortuaries, the deceased rest on a board that is placed on a trolley. At one stage, I was struggling to move a trolley around the figure of Jim Bob, who until then had been lying there minding his business.

“Come on, mate,” I said. “Out of the way.”

Jim stayed put.

I very much enjoyed dealing with one family who were paragons of reasonableness. The family discussed proceedings for only 15 minutes before deciding against a funeral service. Instead, they would have the body cremated. The urn containing the ashes would be placed in the centre of the dining room at their favourite winery and a party would proceed around it.

In delivering the urn to the nephew of the deceased, I was treated to an array of delicious stories to do with ageing. In the best story, the nephew mentioned a woman called Eileen who had a habit of wandering out of her nursing home and trotting off towards Puckle Street, Moonee Ponds. The local police were aware of the situation. “There’s been a breakout,” they would say. “Eileen’s out again.”

As a girl, Eileen’s mother had told her that a lady should never leave home without a hat and gloves. Eileen made good on the advice. Whenever she left the nursing home she was always wearing a hat and gloves – and was otherwise naked.

Changing practices

Australians increasingly are irreverent about the ending of life. I’ll give two possible reasons: the declining influence of the churches; and the fact that people are living longer.

It’s increasingly rare now for someone to die before, say, 70 years of age. The families of the deceased are mostly appreciative that their loved one has seen out a long and, hopefully, rewarding life. The eulogy and the tributes outline the stories of youth and later years. The photo reflections are always popular. Funeral services in Australia – at least the secular ones – are now described as celebrations of life.

Not so in every culture. Immigrants from some Latin countries, for example, do not want an Australian funeral – a celebration of life. In their culture, funerals are mournful, respectful, even yielding – such is the respect for the ceremony. In contrast to my customary approach, I do not treat such funerals with a lighter touch.

Now that people are living longer, it’s becoming more common to arrange your own funeral. In industry terms, this is called ‘a pre-arrange’. It’s mostly done by couples of advancing years who want to help their families by alleviating the stress of organising their funerals. It gives the couple peace of mind. It saves their family from financial impost.

Some pre-arranges are ordered by single elderly, generally widows or widowers.

Occasionally, people become so spooked by death, so certain that they’ll fall off the perch at a prescribed hour – they just know it! – that they become highly agitated about organising a pre-arrange as soon as possible. In these cases, completion of the pre-arrange can indeed have a settling effect. Or it may not.

Some accept the inevitable with grace. Others fight it to the end. Whatever the circumstances, everyone is entitled to dignity. That’s the main consideration behind every decision if you’re working in the funeral industry.

Are you planning on pre-arranging your funeral? Do you want a funeral? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Also listen to Paul’s podcast: What you need to know about a funeral


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