Being a funeral director can be both emotionally and physically challenging – and very stressful. But it’s also incredibly rewarding. It takes a special type of person to listen to a family’s needs, understand their emotions and, through conversations with the family, get to know the person who has died.
For Chris Anson, a Conductor and Arranger at Walter Carter Funerals, it’s a true privilege to be asked by a family to organise the final goodbye for their loved one.
In our two-part series, Chris talks to us about a typical day on the job. This week, in Part 1, he walks us through his morning – one that finds him conducting a traditional service.
6.30am – Up and at ’em
My alarm goes off bright and early. I try not to hit the snooze button and doze off again. Sometimes it’s hard, particularly on mornings like today when I’ve been on call overnight. I’m rostered on as Duty Manager this week, which means I’m on call 24 hours a day, all week.
Taking a couple of calls late at night and in the wee hours of the morning means I’ve had a broken night’s sleep. But it’s a busy morning, so I crawl out of bed and into the shower. I have my morning routine down to a tee, so I’m dressed and out the door with my lunch in hand by 7.00am.
7.15am – It’s going to be a busy day!
I’m lucky my commute is fairly short (at least by Sydney standards), so I walk in the door at Walter Carter Funerals by a little after 7.15am.
Yes, it’s an early start when you consider that ‘normal’ business hours generally kick off anytime between 8.30am and 9.00am. But in our business there’s lots to be done before the rest of the business world opens their doors – particularly on days like today when I have a morning funeral to conduct.
The first thing I do every day is check the day sheet and duty board. It gives me an overview of everything that’s happening – the funerals that are on today and those coming up in the next few days, as well as high-level details of each. At a glance I can easily see that it’s going to be a busy day!
Our business relies on schedules. More importantly, it relies on sticking to those schedules. Today, I’m conducting a funeral service scheduled for 10.00am at one of the local churches, so myself and other members of the team will have to leave Walter Carter Funerals no later than 9.00am. And before we hit the road, there’s a long list of things to do. I’ve been working with the family over the last week on the arrangements for today’s service and I know how important it is to them for everything to be just right.
7.30am – Checking all the details … twice
As I’m the one responsible for conducting this morning’s funeral, I spend some time getting the coffin ready. After being in cold storage overnight, it needs a wipe down to remove any condensation. It’s an RSL funeral, so I also take a moment to drape an Australian flag over the top.
Next comes the hearse. Every speck of dust and dirt shows up on a black car, so I give it a thorough wash and chamois to make sure it’s sparkling. The other team members I’ll be working with today lend a hand, which is a good opportunity for me to brief them about the ins and outs of the service. The briefing process is always important. Sometimes there are special requirements the team needs to be aware of or I may need to pass on details of particular family dynamics so they’re aware of any sensitivities. The more they know, the more smoothly the morning will flow.
With that done, I make sure we have everything we need for the service. Every funeral is unique, so I always double check that I have all the necessary bits and pieces on hand. Today, I know we need to bring along a supply of poppy pins and a recording of The Last Post. I stick my head outside and see a few clouds in the sky, so quickly dash back to load up some umbrellas.
After one last check, I get changed into my suit, check my shoes are polished and then jump in the hearse – we’re off.
9.00am – Getting to the church on time
Sydney traffic can be a bit of a battle at the best of times, so I always leave enough time to account for any potential delays. Sometimes the family will request that we drive past their home or a particular place of significance on the way to the service, and we’re always more than happy to do so. Today, we’re heading to the Holy Cross church in Woollahra for the funeral service and then on to the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park for the burial.
I’m always aware that our funeral probably isn’t the only commitment the church has scheduled for the day – and it’s definitely not the only burial the cemetery will have scheduled. So we have to be on time. If we’re even a few minutes late, it will inevitably have knock on effects.
9.30am – Putting the final details in place
From the moment we arrive at the church, we’re on show. We only get one chance to get this right for the family and give their loved one the send off they deserve – one that reflects who they were and the life they lived.
After unloading the coffin and positioning it at the front of the church, I head off to find the priest. Even though I’ve already spoken to him about whether he’s going to receive the coffin and other arrangements in the days leading up to the funeral, it’s a good chance to answer any last questions and confirm any final details.
The other members of the team are busy with a range of tasks – from making sure the memorial book is laid out and the Order of Service booklets are ready to guiding people to their seats, giving directions for parking or letting people know where the facilities are. Sometimes the family will ask family members and friends to help out with these tasks and that’s great – we like to encourage as much involvement as they feel comfortable with.
Today, the family has nominated the pallbearers. Before the funeral starts, we pull them aside as a group to talk them through what their role will be. Most people haven’t acted as a pallbearer before, so it’s important to let them know where they need to stand, and whether they’ll be lifting and carrying the coffin or rolling it on a trolley. I always make sure I warn them that the coffin will be heavier than they expect. Depending on the heights and relative sizes of the each of the pallbearers, I’ll also let them know which position around the coffin they should take.
No matter what else is going on, I always keep an eye out for the key family members I’ve met during the arrangement process. As soon as they arrive, I greet them and escort them to their seats.
10.00am – A fitting send off
With everything in place, the service is ready to start.
As the conductor for today’s funeral, I’m responsible for taking care of everything that happens over the course of the service so I keep a watchful eye over all the happenings in the church. I usually have three other team members helping me at a funeral and I ask them to always remain in my line of sight. Even with the best of planning, sometimes the most unexpected things pop up and someone needs to be on hand to deal with them right away.
Today’s service is a requiem mass and I know it will take about an hour. The length of the service is something I’ve taken into account during the arrangement process, so I know what time to book for the interment at the cemetery.
11.15am – Time to move on to the cemetery
With the service over and the coffin loaded into the hearse, it’s natural for people to want to talk and provide comfort to each other. We’re always sensitive to this, but also mindful that we’re on a schedule and need to get to the cemetery on time.
Today the family has decided to come out to the cemetery. This isn’t always the case. Many families opt not to make the journey to the cemetery. If that’s the case, I take a few moments to say some final words to them at the church, present them with the memorial book and return any items they may have given us for the service. If they want to keep some of the flowers, we’ll leave these with them. And sometimes families have special requests – for example, they want to keep the cross from the coffin. We’re always happy to do what we can to make this happen.
When the time comes, I let the family know that it’s time for us to move on to the cemetery. I lead the hearse off by walking in front of it for a distance down the road – it’s a nice touch at the end of today’s traditional service.
11.45am – The final committal
When we arrive at the cemetery, I head to the office and submit the necessary paperwork before proceeding to the gravesite for a short committal service with the priest and family members.
12.45pm – A moment to recharge
We arrive back at the office. It’s been a big morning. Conducting a funeral is incredibly rewarding – and it can also be quite draining. I take a little time to recharge by eating some lunch and flicking through the newspaper in the staff room before heading back to my desk to go through voicemail and email messages.