When I tell people I’m a funeral director they’re usually a bit taken aback.
When I tell them I live above the business with a morgue downstairs they’re even more shocked. “I couldn’t do it,” they’ll say. “Aren’t you scared?” Well, not really. Of course, there were a few unsettling moments when I first moved in, but it’s second nature to me now. I was 24 when I decided to become a funeral director. I’d been working as an underwriter for an insurance company for five years, but with talk of redundancies I started considering my options.
My dad had been a funeral director, and I knew how much he’d enjoyed his job, so when he encouraged me to do some work experience with a firm in Leeds, I tried it out.
It was fascinating, I didn’t want to leave – my mind was made up, this was what I wanted to do. Seeing how serious I was, Dad helped me start my own business.
We opened Jennings Funeral Services in January 2009 when I was 27. While we were setting up, I would train for one day a week in Leeds, as well as doing a part-time embalming course.
Embalming involves treating bodies with chemicals to slow down decomposition. It also helps restore the natural appearance of the skin by replacing the blood with water and formaldehyde.
These days, I employ a freelancer to do it, so I can spend more time with the deceased’s family – the part of the job I prefer – but if required, I pull on my apron, shoe covers and gloves before gathering my tools to work on each deceased for about two hours.
Bodies feel cold to the touch, and it might sound grim, but obviously there’s an odour – the smell of death – so I always wear a mask. I’ve never felt squeamish about it, though. After the embalming I dress the deceased and apply make-up to the ladies if asked to do so.
The first deceased I saw – I always use the term ‘deceased’ as a mark of respect – had had a post-mortem. They happen at the hospital to establish cause of death if, say, someone has died unexpectedly or of unnatural causes.
With this one they’d re-opened a scar and all the internal organs were raised up, all I could see was the completely open chest. It’s very interesting because you see everything, right through to the back of the spine. During training you’re told how to deal with rigor mortis, as it affects most deceased.
It’s a chemical reaction that takes place in the muscles after death, causing stiffness to limbs and tension to the joints. You’re very much aware of it the first time you come across it, but it’s something you get used to.
A technique involving gentle movement is all that’s needed to break down the chemicals, but after a period of time it can go by itself.
Living above the business is convenient, but it has its drawbacks. I guess I’m reserved about telling boyfriends. Once or twice when I’ve been asked what I’ve done for a living I’ve even lied, saying I work in the care industry.
I don’t tell them until it’s necessary. Friends think I’m brave, especially as I’ve felt presences in the building, but those in the trade don’t raise an eyebrow. One evening I was home with Jenny, an embalmer friend, and we were talking about some candles I had downstairs in reception, so I went down for one. We had one lady there in a coffin, but as soon as I walked into the workshop I don’t know what it was, but it just hit me.
It was like someone was stood behind me, looking down. After picking up a candle I looked back and thought, “I don’t know if I want to go back through there”, but I did – and I ran. Upstairs, when I told Jenny about it she replied, “Have you never felt that? Because I’ve felt it quite a few times.” I try not to dwell on that side of things.
Although I was brought up Catholic, I’m not sure what I believe now. I do believe there’s something other than us, I just don’t know what. You do need an emotional switch sometimes, particularly where children and babies are involved. Although I’m fine with the physical side, dealing with grieving parents is harder.
Some want you to be formal, while others want a natter and a brew. Either way, you need them to open up, or you can’t conduct the funeral they want.
A rewarding job
Looking after people I’ve known has upset me. There was an old lady whose husband’s funeral I did. I remember her saying afterwards, “You’ll have to look after me too”.
When she passed I got teary, but it made me proud because I did everything I promised I would. On the day of the funeral, it can be hard to be composed. You do get emotionally involved sometimes, but you can’t let it affect the job you’re doing.
For my own funeral I’d like something off the wall. I’d have So Macho by Sinitta, or Bad Boys by Alexandra Burke playing. Although I’m not scared of dying, I don’t like the idea of burial, I’d prefer to be cremated and let my ashes go wherever.
Financially, funeral direction is unpredictable. And as much as I love my job, I have given up a lot for it. It’s a 24-hour commitment. I could have three call-outs in a night, then nothing else for a few weeks. Yes, it’s tiring, but knowing I’ve done a good job is an amazing feeling. For a family to say “we can’t imagine a better send-off” is the most rewarding thing in the world.
SOURCE: Daily Monitor