One stop shop.

I was watching a film not too long since called “Afterlife”, starring Liam Neeson and Christina Ricci, with the story revolving around Neeson’s Funeral Director character.

If you get chance to watch the film I do recommend it as it keeps you guessing all the way through. Well it did me but maybe I’m just a little thick!

Anyway, the point of this post was really to pick the brains of some of you overseas readers.

In the film, and I appreciate there is often artistic license used in these things, the Funeral Director appeared to do everything. He went off to collect the deceased, arranged the funeral, created the floral tributes, attended the viewing and dug the grave.

By complete chance a few days later I caught an episode of Columbo. I can honestly say I love this programme and even though I’ve seen most episodes a ton of times I still tune in if he’s on. Anyhow this episode (Ashes to ashes) centered around Funeral Director and his premises even had a crematorium.

So what I’m curious about is if some Funeral Homes actually do all aspects of a funeral?

Over here the Funeral home can be used for arranging and we have viewing rooms for family viewings. These aren’t vast halls just rooms big enough for a coffin and about 10 people. In some homes the coffins are prepared on site, as are the deceased but floral arrangements are usually from an outside source, the crematorium or cemetery is usually a drive away and the wake is normally a pub or relatives home and I’m not aware of any funeral home that has a cemetery.

So are there really funeral homes where everything is done in one place? This sounds amazing and would certainly save a lot of time washing the vehicles and driving!

Six Months and Counting

Give or take its been six months since I started as an Undertaker and if I’m completely honest – I still love it!

Yes there are times that do piss me off but that is just the same in most lines of work. There are also colleagues that piss me off but that is something you get everywhere.

On the whole though I wake up on a Monday morning and I’m happy to be going to work, even if it is still dark and bitterly cold outside. 

And as far as the actual work goes, although the end results are the same, no two funerals are the same and every week I learn something new.

When I first started someone told me that in the Funeral industry you are constantly learning and they were right.

After six months I can seriously recommend this line of work to anybody who is seriously thinking of doing it. Yes there may be bad times, but mostly it is the best job ever.

Way To Go

The other week I was involved with a funeral for a West Indies family which followed the same plan as any other or so I thought – deceased in church for service, deceased goes to cemetry, deceased is lowered into the ground and gets buried.

The difference was that us Undertakers had very little to do other than drive the funeral cars. The family took the coffin from the hearse and carried into the church, then back to the hearse for the journey to the cemetery afterwards. Once at the cemetery the family members lowered the coffin into the grave and even backfilled the hole – manually with spades!

After chatting with colleagues I discovered that this is often the way at West Indies funerals, with the family liking to do everything they can for their loved ones.

I got to thinking about other cultures and how they give lived ones a send off. 

A while ago we had a funeral for a Afro Caribbean gentleman. I never met him in life but apparently he was a very well respected and much loved member of the community. His funeral was a pretty big affair, and the whole event was like being at a party.

There were seven limousines to transport the immediate family with the other guest making their own way. With hindsight they would have been better organising a fleet of coaches as there were at least 400 mourners in attendance.

The venue itself was a huge hall, set up as if for a concert with a grand piano on the stage, just to the left of where the band were setting up while ensuring there was enough room for the choir!

The whole event was being recorded in much the same way one might have for their wedding video, however the guys doing the filming were using three cinema quality cameras for the main action and six others dotted around the venue.

This funeral went on for about eight hours that I am aware of, with a dove release, singing, drinking and catering that would have put a Royal Wedding to shame.

These two examples put into perspective how different funeral services can be depending upon how culture and beliefs are regarding the dead and when you think about how most of our (white British) funerals go, mourners all dressed in black, crying and sad while we go to the Church or Crematorium before going back to a pub for some sausage rolls and quiche, it makes you fully realise how selfish our grieving can be. We mourn our loss and we are sad for the person we will never see again rather than celebrating their lives. This isn’t to say it is wrong, just different.

I went on to have a brief look at some other funeral practices from across the globe and rather than try and explain them myself, though I’d slot them in here for you to peruse at your leisure;-

different funeral customs

odd funerals

Some of them are probably very unlikely to catch on over here me thinks…

In The Driver’s Seat

During a normal working week I can find myself doing various different jobs such as preparing coffins, dressing the deceased or driving a limo to mention a few, but for the past two weeks I have found myself as Hearse Driver.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not complaining as I absolutely love driving the Hearse and sort of find it a privilege to be taking the deceased on their last journey, but for some people, including certain colleagues, it is seen as being the most important job next to being the Funeral Director which often gives me the impression that some people wonder why it is me in the literal driving seat!

I do agree it is an important job as there are a lot of responsibilities. It is the Hearse drivers responsibility to ensure the coffin and any flowers are secure and safe, you are the one who dictates the speed of the cortage so you have to figure out the route beforehand while trying to guess about any hold ups and if there are none then you have to slow down appropriately so as not to be too early. You are also trying to drive for all the other vehicles following while keeping them together and driving legally and safely. It is your vehicle, and you by association, that everyone will be looking at as you drive by so the pressure is really on to look professional and respectful.

But for me I don’t feel I’m any better than any of my colleagues because no matter how good the Hearse driver is, they are really only as good as the rest of their crew and I’m lucky that my crew are very good.

One thing I have to say though is that I still find it odd to be driving a Hearse. I don’t mean from a practical point of view as its slowly becoming second nature, I mean from the sense of me actually being sat in a Hearse. Its almost like one of those moments where you feel the urge to pinch youself to prove its real.

The only downside is the amount of glass there is on a Hearse and that is only because I am rubbish at cleaning windows, they always have streaks!

Schoolboy Error

It doesn’t matter what line of work you are in, there is a very high probability that at some point in your career you will make a mistake doing something you’ve done a thousand times and for no comprehensible reason.

My schoolboy error occurred last week and as is my luck, it was in full view of the deceased’s family. With hindsight the situation could have been a whole lot worse than it actually was.

Before I explain what I did I need to explain a little about what is supposed to happen at the part of the funeral where my “accident” occurred.

Basically we were just about to remove the coffin from the back of the hearse and carry into the Crematorium. The process is always the same and starts with four of us stood behind the open back door of the hearse, two on the left and two on the right. The two furthest from the coffin walk forward and, using their outer hand (right hand if stood on the right and left if stood on the left), they reach hold of the appropriate handle and slowly draw the coffin out until it is slightly clear of the hearse and then they use their other hand to support the coffin from underneath. The other two repeat the process with the last handles. 

Really straight forward and pretty simple you would think, and to be fair, it normally is however not on this occasion.

I was one of the two who grab the coffin handles first and draw out slowly but for unknown reasons, maybe because I needed to pee, perhaps because I was cold, who knows but instead of waiting for the coffin to clear the hearse before putting my other hand beneath it I decided to put it there as we moved it out.

You may think this a nothing inportant and visually it isn’t, the problem comes because the hearse has a set of rollers on the deck to aid sliding the coffin in and out and once you get a loaded coffin on your hand and then encounter the roller it somewhat hurts – loads in fact!

That’s the part that bit me!

So I’m at the back of the hearse with my hand trapped beneath a loaded coffin and the roller. I obviously knew it had happened but no one else did so they kept pulling the coffin out thinking it was just heavy. 

For anyone who knows me personally they will appreciate that occasionally I may have a slight “potty mouth” and if you imagine how blue the air goes when you stand on a piece of Lego or bang your elbow on something you can imagine what words were going through my head!

Surprisingly I never said a word. I let out no scream of pain nor did I react in any way. How I’ll never know. But the ordeal was not over yet.

We had drawn the coffin out and straightend up but we still had plenty to do and now my hand was painful, numb and throbbing all at the same time. The next part was for lift the coffin up onto our shoulders which means using the hand which is under the coffin, in my case my now injured hand.

We did it and I was subjected to a fresh amount of pain. Think of it like stubbing your bare toe on a door and then kicking a ball straight after. Not nice, but the end was almost here. From this point the coffin is supported on our shoulders only so all I had to do was get to the catafalque (the final resting place for the coffin at a crematorium), lower the coffin and I could leave.

Once it was over I went straight to the toilet and ran cold water over my hand go 5 minutes before sneaking off for a pain reducing cigarette. Upon my return one of my colleagues asked if I was OK and I explained what had happened. He was genuinely gutted and thought it his fault for continuing to pull the coffin out. It took a while to convince him that it was down to my own stupidity and not his fault at all.

My hand took a couple of days to get back to normal and the day after the accident when I did another funeral I took to covering the huge bruise with ladies foundation makeup (not mine I might add) just so mourners didnt think I’d been in some sort of bar room fist fight.

I’m not after sympathy with this story, and there is no moral upon which to end however I can guarantee I shall never do that again.

Give Me A Call, Sometime II

Let me start by apologising for not giving my update, as promised, the morning after being on call. No excuses, I simply never got round to it.

So if you remember back it was just after midnight and I was off to bed during my first On Call shift.

Well the night was terrible. Was it due to the horrific scene that presented itself at a road accident? Was it the hopeless feeling of leaving a grieving widow alone in an empty house after taking her late husband into our care?

No – it was simply the fact that nothing happened!

This sounds really awful but I don’t mean to come across as though I was willing people to die, simply that it was a bit of an anti-climax.

When my alarm went off on that following morning I almost fell out of bed reaching for my phone, partly because I briefly thought in my half asleep straight that this was a call, but mainly to check if I had actually missed a call!

The feeling of panic I had anticipating seeing my phone displaying words to the effect of “27 missed calls” was a little overwhelming.

I had a few comments left on the last post by funeral colleagues across the world, of which I appreciate greatly, saying how being on call will become easier with time. I figured it will, and at some point I will not fear missing a call as waking up at 2am becomes natural but for now I am not quite at that point.

My second On Call shift is rapidly approaching and I suspect if I was to write about it then it would read pretty similar, depending upon if the phone rings or not. 

Anyhow, I thought I’d share.

Give me a call sometime

Today is the day I go on standby for my first “on call” shift. I will finish work at 5pm this evening and be on call until 8am tomorrow morning.

Now some people hate being on call while others love it, for me I honestly couldn’t say yet because obviously I haven’t done it but there are pros and cons.

For example I get paid a single payment for being on call whether I’m called out or not, however because I have to be on site within an hour of the phone call it means I can’t really do a great deal other than sit around waiting.

Similarly I could have a call at 1am and still have to go to work the following morning. At present I’m not worrying too much because I’ve got a couple of funerals to do today so I have ages before I have to think too much about it.

3.10pm –  Only two hours to go until I’m on call. Just finished my last funeral which was a straight forward and straight into the Crematorium. Straight back to base for the last hour and fifty minutes. At this point I have a mixture of anticipation, fear and excitement. Its hard to explain how I feel but it’s a little like when you’re young on the night before Christmas.

4.30pm – Just had a chat with my on call partner. He’s done on call loads of times but as he’s used to being with his normal on call partner I guess it’s new for him in a way. I suspect he has concerns for my ability as I am as new as I am, perhaps he is worried about me screwing up. If he is he isn’t showing it, In fact he’s more concerned with cramming another smoke break in before he finishes work.

5.05pm – I’ve done for the day and I’m on my way home. Already I’m technically on call however this next 40 minutes will be quite tough because I walk to and from work. If the phone rings with a job I might not even have got home let alone be ready to rush out on a job!

7.30pm – got home ages ago without a call which was good and now its tea/supper time. So far I’ve been checking my phone every 10 minutes to ensure I’ve got it on its loudest ring volume and that I havnt missed a call. Realistically I know it is and I know full well I’ve missed nothing however I cant help but check.

I can smell the food cooking and I have the feeling in the back of my mind that the phone will ring just as I tuck in to my first mouthful.

9.50pm – Still no call as yet. I suppose this is a good thing really because no poor soul has lost their life but for me it becoming annoying.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not willing people to die but despite checking my phone every 10 minutes I’m now beginning to worry I may not have a signal. Paranoia is setting in, so much so that I have just phoned myself from a different phone just to make sure. 

I’m about to settle down to watch The X-Files (never got into it the first time round) and am anticipating a call before the end. It would just be my luck to miss the ending.

11.30 – That was a great episode, glad I saw it all the way through. As I finish my cigarette I’m toying with the idea of staying awake all night just to make sure I don’t miss a call. The problem is that if there is no call then I’m expected in work at 8am which wouldn’t be good with no sleep.

I’ll have one last cuppa whilst I wait a little longer

Midnight – the last drags of tea are now cold and I am feeling very sleepy. It is a very odd feeling waiting for something that may not actually come.

I guess with time being on call will get easier but for now I’m finding it quite difficult, and I havnt actually done anything!

I’ve given up the idea of staying awake all night and I’ve just checked everything is ready should my phone ring. Somewhat like a fireman, I’ve laid out my uniform in such a way that I can dress in a couple of minutes. There is a mug of coffee in the fridge awaiting only boiling water and even a cigarette and lighter are on standby to assist me in waking up should that phone ring between now and my alarm at 6am.

For now I shall retire to bed. I’ve checked my phone is on “loud” (again), it has a signal and is on charge. I’m too tired now to do anything other than sleep but I’m so scared of not hearing the phone that I’m unsure if I’ll sleep at all. Not only that but if I do hear the phone, how will I be able to operate after being woke up at some unholy hour?

I will let you know how things go tomorrow, goodnight.

American Casket

So the other day I got to see my first American casket.

I have to say it was a beautiful looking thing. It looked like it was made from lightly brushed stainless steel and had a very comfortable looking interior. Despite its blocky appearance the casket had very few surfaces that didn’t contain a curve of some sort.

As with most things American, such as cars and houses, this was huge compared with its UK equivalent and it wasn’t because the deceased was particularly large but simply that this standard size casket was massive!

I am reasonably certain that it was made by this company, of which I am not connected nor am I in payment from, but I had nothing to do with the ordering of it so I apologise if it isnt but it certainly looked similar.

The only reason I have decided to write about it was because it was something so different to what I normally see on a day to day basis and that made it interesting for me. Also because of the size and different materials used in its construction it made handling different to normal, not just the carrying but also from the fact that no matter how careful you were, there would still end up being fingerprints everywhere.

I think the only downside with this particular casket was that only the head end lid was lined and our client wanted both lids left up for viewing which, when explained to them was fine but it did look a little bland on that side.

Would I have one? Well if I had a few grand spare it would certainly make a statement and for somewhere for you to sleep for the rest of eternity I haven’t seen anything more comfortable looking as yet. And if you are objectionable to being eaten by worms after being buried, this casket seems like it is probably  hermetically sealed so no worries there.

That said, I still have a soft spot for the traditional coffin shape. Don’t know why, I really can’t answer that one, and on the basis that I havn’t even decided whether I want a cremation or buriel also adds to the problem as a metal casket obviously can’t be cremated.

First, First Offices.

image

It was an interesting day today as I got to enter the Embalmer’s Room and do my first ever “First Offices”.

What was good was that I first watched the Embalmer do it, while she explained what and why she was doing things and then I got to do it for myself with her watching my every move.

For anyone not working with the dead ” First Offices” will probably mean nothing and as this blog is not only a journal of my learning but hopefully an insight into the industry for any prospective funeral industry workers, I shall do my best to explain.

Now I work for one particular company and obviously all Funeral Homes have their own way of working so there are bound to be differences. In fact I know of a couple of Funeral Directors who don’t perform the following procedure at all if the deceased is not going to be viewed, however we do the First Offices on all our deceased unless religion, family wishes or being physically unable to do it prevents us.

The first thing that happens once the deceased is placed on the table is to check their identity and the paperwork. This happens every time we do anything with a deceased to ensure we have the right person and they are getting everything done the way they or their loved ones want. Some mistakes can be rectified however others can’t so its best to check every time.

Next we remove their clothes and either save them or dispose of them as per the instructions, however throughout the process the deceased always has a covering to protect their modesty. Obviously no one other than the embalmer or person doing the Fist Offices see them but even so, you wouldn’t want your bits on display would you?

Regardless of how they arrive all the deceased are washed from head to toe. I’ve never washed anyone before, other then myself, and I have to say I found it quite odd, almost uncomfortable. Its not just a rinse off with a hose but full soap and water scrub, and yes even down there! Then its shampooing the hair and finally finding off all the soap suds.

Once washed, dried and dressed in a nappy  it was time to move on to the stuff that I found very unnatural. Now when I say that I found it unnatural I mean the actual process that is required to make the deceased look more natural. I find it bizarre that you have to perform something with the deceased which you would never do to the living just to make them appear less dead.

The first thing that is required is to fit eye caps. These little plastic things look just like oversized contact lenses and are simply slipped over the eyeball. To be fair, even as a novice I found this easy to do in a practical sense however sticking your fingers into someone’s eyes does feel somewhat odd.

The reason for the eye caps is to give the eyes the shape and appearance people expect to see, for after death the eyeballs themselves start to collapse in as they dry out which give the closed eyelids that literal “sunken appearance”.

When it came to this next part I found it physically difficult. The throat and nasal cavities need filling with a cotton wool like material to stop any leakages. Now this sounds fairly easy however simply putting a little wadding up each nostril and in the mouth isn’t good enough to do the job.

What has to happen is the wadding needs pushing down the back of the throat. Similarly a length of wadding is feed up each nostril and pushed so that it fully blocks the nasal cavity. I once caught my nose on a coffee cup and that brought tears to my eyes so this really goes through me!

The last task is to close the mouth. This is done using a needle that is almost U shaped and what for all intents and purposes looks like string. Firstly the needle is passed down through the mouth, just in behind the front teeth and out just under the chin. Then the needle goes back through the same hole in the chin but out in front of the teeth this time. This makes sure there isn’t a dimple in the chin that wasn’t there before.

The needle is then pushed up into the roof of the mouth, behind the top teeth, and through into the nose before passing through into the other side of the nose and back down. Then its just a case of closing the mouth and tying the ends of the suture together to give the most natural appearance as possible.

Quite a straightforward process and one which I will hopefully get better at with practice. As I said earlier, there is quite a lot of things to do simply to make someone appear natural and in that “just sleeping” pose but without seeing a person before and after, it is difficult to appreciate what a difference doing all this makes.

A bit of a long winded entry but hopefully someone may find it interesting.

Three firsts in one week

These weekends don’t half come around quick nowadays, I’m not sure if its because of the change in job or simply because I’m getting old – either way I’m still not dreading the pending Monday morning return to work so this is good.

This week started with the first job of the morning being another first for me in my “new” career. I was let loose to drive the Hearse for the first time with a passenger in the back.

Before we left my mentor took me through all the things that need checking such as that there is a set of trestles, enough non-stick flower matting and all the other essential but often unnoticed things associated with the Hearse. After that it was time to load my passenger ready for his last journey.

In fairness this was going to be a very easy introduction to Hearse driving. Firstly it was a Hearse only job going straight to the cemetery with the family meeting us there. Secondly the cemetery in question was practically at the bottom of my road so I knew the way there very well.

Although I enjoyed it and learned new things about getting the vehicle ready, the actually journey was pretty easy. I had no vehicles following behind to worry about keeping together so in effect it was simply like me driving home from work but a lot slower!

Wednesday was my second time driving the Hearse but this time it was in more unfamiliar territory and with four following vehicles. I enjoyed this learning far more and just to make things even more interesting, the four vehicles behind me were all the deceased relatives so I had to keep “untrained” drivers together for the whole journey.

Onto Friday and the last job of the day where I was to drive a limo. I have driven the limo a few times but never with passengers. Now this sounds a lot easier because the Hearse driver should know the route and it is their responsibility to keep the pack together but I can tell you it isn’t.

For a start you have family in the back, up to six of them. Some may be emotional, others maybe not so but mainly the only thing they have to do is during the journey is look forward at the coffin in the Hearse or at the Limo driver. Everything you do seems to be scrutinised and evaluated. Perhaps this isn’t the case but it sure feels that way.

Secondly you have to keep yourself as close to the Hearse as possible so nobody else breaks up the cortege. This sort of driving goes against everything you have previously learned about driving. Your eyes are almost glued to the break lights of the Hearse, you don’t give way to traffic and if you happen to see red traffic lights you treat them as “give way” as opposed to “Stop”. There is no legal right to drive the way we do whilst in Funeral Cortege but there is an expectation and tradition that we do.

After the twenty minute drive my mouth was dry and I felt physically drained as though I’d driven the whole journey from Glasgow to Penzance non stop, purely because of the concentration required to do the job flawlessly.

I have to say that it went fine, and after wards I did find that I had enjoyed it, but it is the most tiring and skillful thing I have ever had to do whilst at work. That said, the most difficult one is out of the way, once you’ve done something once, the following ones get easier, or at least I hope they do!