My Interesting Job: Funeral Director

My Interesting Job: Funeral Director

When 29-year-old Reagan first thought about what she wanted to do for work, she thought of herself working on the beauty counters at a department store. Little did she know, her beauty diploma would lead her to becoming a funeral director. From embalming to arranging the funeral itself, Reagan talks us through what her job is really like.

Where did you go to college and what did you study?

I went to the Mary Reid School of Beauty in Edinburgh and did a beauty specialist course, where I got my diploma. I always liked make-up – I thought I might go into working on a make-up counter.

So, how did you end up in the funeral industry?

It was my interest in beauty that made me want to go into it. I found out how closely linked the make-up side was to the embalming, so I learnt more about the industry and thought that this was something I could see myself doing: helping people at a difficult time.

Do you have to have any specific qualifications? And how much does it cost to train?

The Co-Op provides all on-the-job training for the role. When I first started, I was an arranger, which is mainly an admin role helping with funeral arranging,and then went onto to do my funeral directing diploma. You don’t have to pay – and you learn  on the job. There are private courses you can do separately, like private embalming courses, and you can do a course through the National Association of Funeral Directors, but mostly I think your employer sets you up with the courses.

What was your first role?

My first role was mobile funeral arranger. It’s a full-time position, but I was moving between covering people’s holidays and being a helping hand in busier offices if needed.

Were you nervous on your first day?

Extremely. but I was excited too. I’d applied for two years before I got a position – I was relentless. So, I was eager to start and felt grateful to be offered the job. Ten years ago, I think it was probably quite unusual to have someone so young come and do this job, but now we’ve got loads of young people working in this industry.

When did you feel like you’d found your calling in life?

Once I’d got a bit more comfortable and started meeting with families and doing arrangements, I just knew it’s what I wanted to do – just helping families. That feeling of job satisfaction that I got made me think this is definitely what I’m meant to be doing.

What exactly does the job of a funeral director entail?

The funeral director is there to support the family from the earliest opportunity. I initially meet with them when they come into the office or go out to their house to begin planning, and then keep in touch with them, whether they’re coming in to see their loved ones or arranging the order of service, music, things like that. The funeral director is the person who’s there on the day to support the family and make sure everything runs accordingly.

Describe your typical day.

It varies. I could be meeting a family to arrange a funeral in the office or out all day at briefings, or just dealing with general enquiries. We now have someone for a night shift, but before that we’d be on call overnight. Sometimes you do have to come in early or stay late because funerals can start at 9am, or a family could walk in at 5pm, and you need to stay and see to them. You just need to be there as and when you’re required.

What do you think the character traits of a good funeral director should be?

Definitely empathetic and kind. You must be professional and organised and be able to manage your time.
What is the office dress code?

We’ve got uniforms – we’ve got a ceremonial uniform, which is your top hat and your tails, and our office uniform, which is a plain suit.

Are you honest with people about what you do?

It depends on the circumstance. If a friend introduced me to a friend of theirs, I would probably be honest, but if I’m in a bar and someone asks, I just say I work in a bank – the conversation usually ends there!

What’s the most common question you get asked from people about your job?

People always say, “Are you not scared?” No, it’s a nice thing to be able to do – it’s the last thing you can do for someone. If someone says, “This is how my mum would do her hair,” it’s nice being able to do that for them, so they have that last memory.

Have you had any strange or interesting requests from clients?

We’ve had people asking us to hand out the deceased’s favourite sweets, which I think is quite nice, because maybe they used to have them in their pocket or hand them out to people.

When it comes to doing hair and make-up on bodies, is there anything you can’t do?

Most things are possible. If someone wants their mum to wear their own lipstick or make-up, it’s not a problem. I’ve put fake eyelashes on people, painted nails, touched up roots with a spray. It’s always handy if someone gives you a picture, but it’s the last time they’re going to see their loved ones, so you must make sure it looks like them as much as possible.

What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about your job?

A lot of people say, “Well, someone’s got to do it!” and I think that always makes it sound really negative. It’s not like that at all – it’s a really rewarding job. You’re helping people at their lowest. I’m really lucky to be able to do it.

What’s the best part about your job?

When you’ve had a family come in to make arrangements and you’ve spent a bit of time going through everything with them. When they leave, you can tell they feel a bit brighter, and it’s nice to know you’ve helped create that – you’ve taken some of the stress away from them and made it a little easier.

Is the funeral industry a male-dominated one and if so, did you find it hard to fit in?

There was a time years ago where it would have only been a male job, but now there are so many women within different roles. We’ve got female embalmers, female drivers, arrangers, funeral directors, so I think it’s quite evenly spread.

Do you ever have people planning their own funerals? Is that the saddest part of the job?

It’s actually really popular to plan your own funeral and we encourage people to do it. They don’t want to leave it to their children, or perhaps they don’t have children. I think a lot of people feel relieved to have done it; they don’t have to think about it again. And you only save money – prices go up every year.

Have you ever made a mistake that you’ve really learned from?

A few weeks ago, someone was having a charity collection at the end of the service, and I’d forgotten to get a collection box from my hearse – which had already left the crematorium to go to another funeral. I was walking out with the family and I realised I didn’t have the box, so I just had to put my top hat out for people to put money in. Now I always ask my limo driver to carry some extra boxes in their car, just in case.

What’s your most memorable moment?

I had the privilege of arranging and conducting my auntie’s funeral. We were really close and it was the last thing I could do for her. She had special needs, and there was this little toy poodle that she loved. I brought it to the funeral when I paged the hearse (the process in which the funeral director walks in front of the car) and carried it under my arm. That meant a lot to my family, to be able to do those small touches.

What’s the most stressful part of your job?

We have periods where we’re extremely busy which can be quite stressful. So it’s vital to ensure sure you haven’t missed anything when you’re trying to tie up arrangements but also racing to get out the door to conduct a funeral.

How do you switch off when you go home?

For me, it’s definitely exercise – I go to the gym about five times a week. Also going out to dinner with the girls or visiting my grandma, things that take you away from the job completely.

What’s the mood like between the team? When you're dealing with such sadness and emotion from families, is it ever easy to say you’ve had ‘a good day' at work?

It sounds bizarre because people must think we go home in floods of tears – but if you did do that you’d be in the wrong job. Some days are emotionally trying, but we all help each other. There are so many people behind the scenes that are necessary for a funeral to go ahead, so you’re constantly in touch. We all get on great and go out socially.

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