How To Be A Funeral Director

Sep 16, 2016
How To Be A Funeral Director It 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.   

The 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.   

That’s 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.   

A 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.   

Bereavement 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.   

However, 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.   

The 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.  

In 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.   

There’s 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.   

He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director”

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