The following article has been published with permission from the author. The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of eziFunerals and members.
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In an age where almost everything is regulated, it would appear at odds that the Victorian funeral industry is almost devoid of any significant regulation, licensing or training.
For as long as I can ever remember, there have been industry calls for regulation., I have sat on boards that have called themselves professionals and in one case likened themselves to chartered accountants. The differences between the two could not be more startling.
For most entering the funeral industry, there is no formal or structured training. On the job learning starts from day one. Some funeral directors believe that throwing prospective employees into the “deep end” will determine if they are a suitable candidate. This may include taking them on deceased collections transfers, introduction into a mortuary and potentially witnessing autopsies, often within their first few hours of stepping foot into their premises! It’s hardly surprising some don’t last until morning tea.
Historically funeral directors, or undertakers as we were known, were cabinet makers, they made their own coffins, collected and prepared the deceased and carried out the funeral. They were real family affairs where the men would perform the day-to-day functions in the funeral parlour, but when they went out their wives attended to “walk ins” (families coming into the funeral home to advise of a death without telephoning first). Funeral directors lived on their premises and it was 24 hours, 7 day a week affair. Children of the funeral directors also lived in the funeral home. Many would grow up to take the reins of their parents. Learning was from a young age and children were instructed in how to behave and where they could and could not go within the funeral home. As a fifth generation funeral director this is how it was for me and my father before me and his father as well. For each generation we were bought up with a clear understanding of care, compassion and respect.
During the 1960s and 70s most funeral homes were no longer making their own coffins as these were being made by industry-specific manufacturers which continues to this day. Funeral Directors (as is now the preferred name) came to concentrate on the delivery of the funeral service itself. Many funeral homes up to this point had been regarded as either Catholic or Protestant funeral homes. Towns would typically have 2 funeral directors and they would generally look after one of the two major religions. This era also provided another fundamental change to this dynamic, ‘Immigration’. As with many other facets of Australian culture, the immigrants bought a wealth of new customs and traditions to our shores. Funeral directors had to adapt and learn these customs overnight. With it bought the obvious rationale that funeral homes were capable of dealing with all faiths, customs and traditions.
Throughout the 60s and 70s, we began to see many family-owned funeral homes that either had no children or indeed children that did not want to continue in the family business. Many of these small businesses began to be absorbed by larger families, sometimes the names were changed. Many of these old names still exist but may be under an ASX listed company ownership with no connection to its former owners.
Traditional funeral directors would train staff in traditional ways. A funeral crew would be made up of:
2. Hearse driver
3. Coach driver.
The most experienced staff would be the conductor; typically, this person had many years of experience and on-the-job training and mentoring before reaching this role. The hearse driver, normally the newest person, would work alongside the conductor, receiving constant instruction and mentorship. They may be in this role for several years as they learnt all aspects of the funeral industry. The coach driver has already been through this mentorship and now had greater responsibilities in collecting families and getting them to the funeral venue on time and returning them home. The next step up for them will be to a conductor.
While training was on the job wasn’t quick, funeral staff had plenty of opportunities to practice and learn from experienced knowledgeable staff with many years of learning. These funeral crews would typically work together for many years and become adept at intuitively knowing how to work together.
Funeral staff were required to work their fair share of after-hours and on-call work. This may be funeral transfers (collection of deceased from aged care, private homes, hospitals, etc). Many funeral homes also had contracts to provide coronial transfers for reportable deaths, such as murder, suicide, road trauma etc. The work would be interesting as you would not know where your next job may take you. Some funeral director assistants would struggle with these often difficult tasks. There was no debriefing or counselling provided or available at this time.
Skilled and experienced staff may also be funeral arrangers; these were the staff that would meet with families to organise funerals. As well as a thorough understanding of the operational and practical aspects of organising a funeral, a funeral arranger is required to complete the statutory and required documentation for a funeral.
The only documented and structured training was reserved for embalmers. Although there have been numerous iterations of embalming training in Australia, early embalmers did their theory and exams via correspondence and their practical case studies with local mentors and examiners. Most would take about two years to complete their studies. In Melbourne, there were only a handful of funeral homes that placed a high priority on embalmer training and education. Most did not, and many did not have trained embalming staff, and this is still the case today.
With the advent of HIV/AIDS we saw a dramatic and cohesive interest and effort in training for Infection Control practices and procedures. In collaboration with the Health Department Victoria, The Australian Funeral Directors Association and the Union movement, the industry was finally able to construct structured guidelines that were both valuable and worthwhile for all those concerned. The early courses ran for two days, addressing the stigmas of HIV/AIDs and the practical considerations of universal barrier precautions and personal protective equipment.
While early courses were well attended, interest wained and it wasn’t long before funeral homes were calling for the course to be shortened, so staff didn’t have to be away so long (2 days). Indeed, the course is now non-existent. A travesty at best and irresponsible to say the least! This strikes at the heart of an industry trying to obtain potential regulation or licensing. The inability of funeral directors to place a high priority on training or education of their workforce in funeral service.
In the early 1980s, the Australian Funeral Directors Association ran a number of 2 week live-in Funeral Management Schools, for skilled professionals to upgrade their management skills in funeral service. These have also gone by the wayside.
Robert Nelson provides an insight into some potential solutions in Part 2.
About the Author
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.
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