My First Funeral

   W.N.Bull prefers to wait before sending new staff out on funerals.  There is an old attitude of building experience before letting people out.  They assume that all new staff are inexperienced, or at least do not know “the W.N.Bull way” of doing things.  And the ‘W.N.Bull way’ is the right way.  This meant it was a few weeks before I was out of a funeral.  It was a fairly big funeral to, we had the hearse and three hire cars on the job.  The reason we had so many hire cars is that W.N.Bull had no ‘family car drivers’ really.  Until the other new guy and I started they were down two garage staff. The my supervisor was the conductor and 'Panda' was the hearse driver. Panda is a great guy, and the first person I would pick to go on a transfer with. He is warm, friendly, very casual and yet somehow very professional. We had one of our staff on a 'family car' following the hearse.

The hearse driver, conductor and I all hopped in the hearse. The conductor sat in the front passenger seat (shotgun). I sat in the back, accompanied by red table cloths, pads and other miscellaneous stuff we use on funerals. It was a nice chat on the way out, getting to know each other and just talking. But as we got closer the conductor suddenly started giving me a run down of my duties and what the job would involve. I was to help get everything out of the hearse, tables, pads to sign, etc. And then I would stand by a table to just hand out mass books and get people to sign the condolence book.

We arrived at the church half and hour early. This is standard, we always aim to get there a minimum of 30 minutes before it starts to set up. The church was in Marrickville, a nice little Spanish style place. I jumped out and grabbed the tables out from underneath, with the help of the hearse driver. Almost every hearse has 'side doors' on either side. They open up to access the space under where the coffin sits. Here is where we keep the spare tire, two tables, umbrellas, two collapsable chairs, a couple of boxes of various little things, and many other handy stuff needed on funerals. The space under there is huge! However it can be tricky to open the side doors. They all have a button to open them in different places in the hearse, and sometimes they stick making it difficult to impossible to open on your own. So the hearse driver helped me get everything out, showing me how to do so on my own in the future.

Next we had to take the coffin inside. There were several stairs between us and the door to the church. We pulled the coffin out of the back of the hearse, the four of us all took one handel. I was on the foot (the lightest part that goes in and out of the church first). the hearse driver was on the head, where they always are. The coffin was not too heavy, but only holding one handle with one hand is awkward. We got the coffin up the steps and placed it on the trolley. They showed me how we center it on the trolley and then wheeled it inside.

The tables were to be set up on the left of the main door. Spacy and I set up the tables while the conductor and Panda went inside. The tables were secretly tricky, there was a ring on the inside arm of each leg which had to be lowered. Otherwise the table would collapse under weight, quite embarrassing. We set up the tables together and then put out several pads for people to sign. Spacy explained that many people will not sign the very top line. People do not see it as the first line, so we should ask them "to sign the top line politely, but never be pushy about it". He also told me about how there would be a rush shortly before the service then nothing.

He was right, I remember that about 15 minutes before the service was to start lots of people started turning up. It was interesting, I was unsure how to act. Not four weeks earlier I had been in a street sales job and was encouraged to be as positive and outgoing with people as possible. And here I was at a funeral. Was I suppose to smile and be happy with people? Was I suppose to be sad for their loss? or how about indifferent? It was difficult to know how to behave at first. But I have since found that people appreciate a smile or friendly chit chat in most cases. Be happy!

Back to the funeral. We had everyone sign, handed them a mass book and then the service started. The hearse driver and conductor went inside to place the paul and then left the rest of us outside. Here is where I discovered the in many ways worst part of the job. We sat there, chatting, for an hour with nothing to really do. It is nice to chat, we sometimes get coffee. But on many jobs you will end up standing there, outside in a three piece suit with nothing to do. For the older people this is nice. They get to sit and relax. For the younger people it is not always good, hanging about with nothing to do.

In this time I got to know the other guys a bit better. And I got to meet some of the drivers from Best Limousines Sydney (BLS). They were great people and over the year I would get to find what a great company this is. There are many Hire Car companies out there, and most are good. But BLS is great. No, I do not gain anything by promoting anyone or any organisation. I just say what I think about them for better or worse. And the drivers from BLS are all nice and professional.

The service was drawing to a close, I helped bring the coffin out. It was much the same process as taking it in except the other direction. After we had the coffin in the hearse the conductor and hearse driver stood either side of it, holding one handle each. The priest and family then proceded to sprinkle holy water on it before they finished putting it in the hearse and shut the door. Once the door was shut they were off. I was surprised by the speed and determination with which they moved. The conductor went right for the priest and family. Meanwhile everyone else went for the tables and church. Spacy and I collapsed the tables, put them away and then went into the church. We did "the run through", basically it means walking through the church and making sure there is no rubbish or relevant items left on the seats. Then we grabbed the flowers from the front of the church. Taking them outside and putting them in the back of the hearse. We were now racing about. Yet we had to not look as though we were 'rushing'. Perhaps it would be better to say we were 'racing about slowly'. Either way, the difference from waiting about outside doing nothing to now racing around was quite a polar difference.

Everything was packed up and the family ready to move out, in under 15 minutes. Quite impressive actually. At W.N.Bull they continue the tradition of the conductor "walking off the hearse". The conductor will walk in front of the hearse for a short distance. At least as far as out of the church and just past the next intersection or corner. I found this fascinating, that other funeral homes do not do this anymore despite being such a traditional industry.

The burial was at Rookwood Catholic. So we had to stop by the office at the cemetery first. Panda explained this was to get paperwork and prove who we were. He also went on to say how this can be an issue as not many people know the stop is temporary. Instead they park there and hop out only to find the hearse driving off. Which means we have to wait at the grave for them. Luckily today they did not get out, everyone sat in their cars and waited like good little mourners.

At the graveside we put all the flowers from the church on the grave cover. I was surprised by the cover, it was literally a wide bored with some fake grass on it. And the fake grass did not even cover it completely, leaving the ends of the bored naked. Then we had to carry the coffin over to the grave. This was actually quite difficult as the ground was uneven. Stepping over rocks and into holes, it was not an easy job. But at least the coffin was not too heavy and it was not too far a walk.

The priest preached over the coffin, sprinkled it with holy water again to "hallow the grave" and then we lowered. To do this we each took a rope, long white flat strips of cloth like thick seat-belts. This would be my first time lowering, so I was quite nervous. I had an image of dropping the coffin or something else equally bad going wrong. Nothing went wrong, it was as uneventful as any other funeral. After we lowered and moved away the conductor held a basket of petals for mourners to place in the grave. It was interesting how hesitant yet keen people were to do this. Most people were a little uncertain about it, but everyone wanted to do it.

When everyone was done we put the cover over the grave, handed out little bottles of water and that was it. I had just completed my first funeral. A very uneventful but still interesting funeral. I had never done anything like this before. It would be an experience that I will remember for a long time.


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