would be nice to say that being a funeral director is just like people think it
is: social work for the newly bereaved, guiding them through the blistering initial
stages of their loss; listening, advising and steering their grief in a healing
direction by enabling them to hold a meaningful funeral ceremony. Indeed, when
it’s done properly funeral directing is just that: collaborative, short-order
event management where maybe, just maybe, a moment can be created where the stars
will shine in the darkness.
truth however, is that the funeral profession represents the Accident & Emergency
Department of bereavement and behind the scenes in a funeral home things often get
just as chaotic and pressurised. That’s partly our own fault for making like
ducks: creating the pretence of gliding along serenely whilst our little legs
paddle furiously beneath. Ironically, the price of treating everyone like they’re
our only client is that when it comes to spending time lovingly tending to the
dead or holding hands with sobbing relatives, we rarely have the time.
not to say it doesn’t still require a very particular grace and exceptional
powers of empathy to work with the newly bereaved, but as funeral directors we need
to be constantly aware that no-one approaches us by choice and they rarely want
to engage with our offering for a moment longer than necessary. They want help
getting the funeral arrangements made and in the meantime have the body looked
after, whilst resigned to the expectation it’ll probably cost them an arm and a
leg for the privilege.
funeral director’s daily duties are governed by their individual status as
employee, manager or company owner, as well as the size of their company. Consequently
once you get to ‘funeral director’ level you don’t necessarily have much daily
contact with dead bodies. Sometimes that’s a blessing. There are lots of people
who think it must be really special to work with the dead, and for the first
few years it is. But the dead become quite boring once you’re accustomed to seeing
them in all their various permutations; and as for being told, “You’ve made him
look so peaceful,” after you’ve spent ages getting the body looking palatably presentable
(by dead body standards, at least), you’re equally likely to get “It doesn’t
look like my Dad”. I once got a “Bugger me…I wish I hadn’t bloody come now.” It
was tempting to parry back with an equally blunt “Look, she’s been dead for a
week; you can’t expect a purse from a sow’s ear,” but that wasn’t what my
visitor meant. If affirmations from grateful clients are trophies, we’re often awarded
the wooden spoon.
can make people act in very irrational ways, but if they’re socially awkward or
idiosyncratic characters to begin with, bereavement will just turn up their volume.
Whilst for some the rug is pulled out from under them, taking with it everything
they hold dear; for others the responsibility of making funeral arrangements is
a distasteful imposition and an outrageous expense. Either way funeral
directors are expected to parachute in, identify and pirouette around even the tiniest
individual sensitivities, create something meaningful from it all and still
find a tactful way to render the bill before exiting stage left.
there can be beauty in the darkness and sadly too many funeral professionals fail
to notice the rich and rewarding subtleties this work brings with it. Funeral
directing isn’t just a job; it’s a daily negotiation between the profound and
the prosaic. It demands acute levels of self-awareness and emotional
intelligence and requires us to honour its otherness and submit ourselves to its
sense of transcendence.
greatest responsibility placed upon funeral directors is to maintain constant awareness
of the power we’re granted and the obligation we’re placed under every time the
bereaved open up their lives and their grief to us. Whilst there’s genuine
satisfaction in treating people’s vulnerability with honour, that power has to
be exercised with the utmost caution and respect. Perhaps it’s no coincidence
the majority of funeral directors are still family-run, independent businesses;
well established within their communities but continually striving to be all
things to everyone by balancing progressiveness with traditional mores, just as
they’ve always done.
contrast the large funeral chains are a constantly exploitative menace, but at least
the public have a greater awareness of them now. However, corporate chains represent
just one polarity of contemporary funeral directing. Opposite them is a radical
left wing of niche undertakers who decry ‘tradition’ and all its paternalistic black-clad
works, and instead advocate a non-interventionist approach. Although well-intentioned,
this movement inevitably risks attracting recruits from the ranks of the bien
pensant and potentially more dangerously, those with scores to settle after damaging
run-ins with tradition. You simply cannot afford to approach funeral work
pre-loaded; the bereaved are endangered enough already.
no foolproof recruitment test for a career in funeral directing. But to be truly
effective within it, prospective entrants would do well to begin by asking themselves
precisely what their motivations are. If they’re drawn by the uniqueness of a profession
that dances between the sacred, the secular and sometimes the surreal, they’re far
from alone. But if it’s the prospect of drawing alongside the newly-bereaved that
really fires a person’s imagination, they need to be sure their intentions are baggage-free
before seeking to heal others.
James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos. www.fredstevens.co.uk
He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director” www.amazon.co.uk