2012-02-18

Working Funerals - Driving a Funeral Car


Driving a car is not too difficult of a job.  As long as you are in the right place at the right time then the rest is just additional.  To make life easier I will explain the job as I have found it, this should be easier to work the job and to understand those who work the job.  Being a family car driver can essentially be divided into three main parts; first is the pickup and drop-off, second is driving in the cortege and third is working the funeral.  I will explain each in more detail below:


The Pickup & Drop-off

   The pickup is the first impression you will have with the family, obviously this is very important.  The family can vary quite dramatically when picking them up, some people will be absolutely lovely, others will be quite aloof as you are just the ‘driver’.  In any case you will have to judge their mood and act accordingly.  So here is a short procedure for picking them up which should make it easier:
  1. Make sure  both you and your car are clean and presentable and have enough fuel for the day.
  2. Keep the car stocked with water and tissues, but do not over do it.  You want one water per person and within easy reach, but to keep it discretely out of sight.
  3. Know the way.  This is the most important aspect, but also one of the hardest.  Things can change at the last minute (such as an extra pick-up in another location) or unexpected events can pop up (such as construction blocking the street).  You should never rely on the GPS either, but feel free to use it.  This will help in the case of a street with no or confusing numbers.  However if you rely on it completely it may take you a really long or wrong way (such as up a one-way street).
  4. Arrive at the pickup no more than five minutes early or right on time.  Never arrive late and never arrive too early.  Arriving too early will make the family feel like they have to rush and leave quickly.  And arriving to late makes you look unprofessional.  So be on time or very slightly early.
  5. Introduce yourself by name and who you work for when you arrive )obvious but some forget).  Find your people and let them know where you are.  If they invite you in refuse politely, it is never good form to go in for a coffee or tea unless you know them.  Instead wait by the car patiently.
  6. When they get in the car re-introduce yourself very briefly, just your name will do here.  Make sure to point out where the water is and ask if the air conditioning is fine.  People are polite and/or shy by nature so they would rather be uncomfortable than ‘demanding’.  Asking them forces a considered response, they have to actually chose the temperature that way rather than just sit in it.
  7. Shortly before arriving at the church, cemetery, crematorium, or wherever the service is being held tell them about the conductor.  Give them his/her name and a very short positive description.

   The drop-off is basically as important as the pickup as this is the last image you will leave with the family.  On the way back from the funeral the family can often be tired, upset, quiet or happy and quite bubbly.  It really depends on the people but how they act when you first pick them up is the best indication of how they will be on the way to drop them off.  Here is a short procedure for dropping off the family:

  1. Have the car re-stocked with fresh water and tissues if needed and you get the chance.
  2. Make sure you know the way.  Again, this should be obvious but on many many occasions the drop-off destination has changed for one reason or another.  Just be ready for a new drop-off.  A good hint is to look in the order of service (if there is one) for a listed drop-off or wake.


Driving in Cortege

   This is perhaps one of the more difficult parts of the job.  You will be following about 2 feet behind a hearse at a decent speed while talking to people in the car. .  Here is a list of tips for following in cortege:
  1. Learn to break with the left foot in automatic or ‘heal toe’ break in manual.  This can really cut your stopping distance, and shaving even one metre off the stopping distance can save you from ‘bumping’ into a hearse.  It may be tricky to learn at first but is well worth it.
  2. Keep up.  Perhaps the most important should be the most obvious.  Yet many people do not keep up.  If you are too far from the hearse or car in front you will get cut off.  It will also annoy the hearse driver as they think you are trying to dictate the cortege’s speed, which is their job.  They might be assuming a certain speed to enter a freeway or merge, so if you fall back it could ruin their plans.  Simply keep up and put faith in the driver in front.  You will learn which drivers need more room than others and after time be able to predict when they will break before they break.  If other cars get separated do not slow down (unless directly told to) as it is the hearse drivers job to keep the cortege together, not yours.  Stick to your job and follow the hearse blindly.
  3. Stay close and do not let others into the cortege.  While driving below the speed limit people will want to jump into or pass the cortege.  The best way to prevent people from getting into the cortege is to keep up with the hearse, close enough to just see the bottom of its tires.  But be prepared as people will attempt to jump in anyway, sometimes quite legitimately and other times just to get one step ahead.  Do your best to keep people out, but not at the risk of an accident.  Especially near freeway entries/exits it is best to just let the person in rather than to side-swipe them.  Be patient as most people will jump out as soon as they realise that it is a funeral cortege.
  4. Indicate, this is often forgotten and so helpful.  You are not alone, so do not drive like you are.  Instead you are part of a bigger group and will need to indicate sooner and for longer.  If you see the car in front indicate start indicating at the same time, do not delay.  It is so irritating and dangerous as a back car to find the cortege has moved over a lane and is about to exit a freeway.
  5. Stay in line with the car in front or preferably the hearse.  This makes the cortege look so much better and makes it more obvious to other drivers that you are part of a funeral.  It is easy to follow in a line, simply sit right behind the drivers seat of the vehicle in front.  Follow their line as they go around corners and merge, do not make your own path.  This is very useful when driving in tight driveways and cemeteries as if you follow the car in front and they do not hit anything you should not hit anything either.
  6. Do not break the rules to keep up.  If you are about to be separated from the hearse due to a red light do not run it or worry.  They will slow right down until you catch up.  So sit tight, do not speed, know the way and hope they do not turn a corner before you can find them again.  The only exception to this is during a police escort.
  7. Never pass the hearse.  Simple, never ever pass it as a hire car driver unless expressly told otherwise.  It leads the way, it keeps the cortege together, it is the boss.  
  8. They will pull up to an office in most cemeteries, just sit tight behind, do not pass them and try not to let your people out.  Often (especially after a long drive on a hot day) people will want to go to the toilet.  Do not prevent them from going, instead let them know the conductor will not be long and if they can wait five minutes you will be on your way.  If they do hop out and the conductor gets back first you can do one of two things: Either sit still while the hearse pulls out, and assume it will get the message soon.  Or jump out and let the conductor know the situation.  IT really depends on the conductor which you chose.
  9. At the graveside or crematorium stop with about one car length between you and the hearse (if you are right behind it).  Do not stop too far away or too close and always park directly behind it or the following cars if you are a hire car driver.  Unless told otherwise (by the conductor) never park in front, on the other side of the road or anywhere other than in line with the hearse.


Working the Funeral

   Being a family car driver is not just about the driving.  You also have to work the funeral and help the hearse driver and conductor with their duties.  Generally be helpful, get people to sign the condolence books and help the family in and out of the other hire cars (if there are any).  Try to keep an eye on your car, especially if it is unlocked.  And just be ready near it when the family are coming out so they can find you easily.



General Tips for Driving a Car

   Here is some miscellaneous tips and information which may help you understand the job at hand;
   Try and keep the hire cars together.  Even when not in a cortege it is nice to keep any and all hire cars in a neat little row.  So if there are four cars taking the family back to a wake leave the cemetery together, arrive together and then leave the wake together.  There are obvious exceptions to this rule, but general keep the cortege going even without the hearse.


   When parking the car you can generally stop or park anywhere that is safe to do so.  When you stop at the pickup and drop-off you take a risk if you park illegally, but essentially you want to park as close and conveniently to the door as possible.  If you park in a ‘no stopping’ zone on a funeral then you can suffer a fine (as I have seen on a large funeral).  But most parking wardens are quite understanding, so explain politely to them why you are there and you might get away with it.


   I was once told by another very experienced and good hire car driver that the car should be parked about a good foot out from the kerb.  This lets people step into the gutter to get in and out of the car without getting their feet dirty.  He told me how this made it much easier for people, especially the old or ‘unstable’, to get in and out.  This sounded quite odd, but I tried it out all the same and found it to be quite easier for my passengers.  Being able to step up into the car when getting in, or down out of it when getting out, rather than stepping straight onto the foot path was faster and simpler.  Not only does it make it easier for them it makes it safer as they are less lightly to slip and you will not need to help them as much so it makes your job simpler.  I cannot recommend it more.


   Have all the doors open whenever your people are approaching the car.  If you only open the doors on one side people will often slide along the back seat rather than going around the car and opening the door themselves.  It is simply because they will often feel uncomfortable opening the doors themselves.  They are not lazy, really it is not their car and would you feel comfortable opening a total strangers car up?  Having all the doors open (but not the drivers door) on both sides will prevent this and make them a lot more comfortable.


   The GPS is a mixed blessing when driving a car.  You should never ever rely on it, the one in my new Caprice is state of the art, has live traffic updates and the latest maps.  Yet will take pleasure in directing me up a one-way street and enthusiastically warn me of a non-existent accident while forgetting to tell me about the bad traffic I am stuck in.  Having said that it can be an invaluable tool when used right.  Arriving at the street of a pickup and finding no house numbers is quite frustrating, here the GPS will tell you where exactly the house is.  Some conductors and people will not want you to use it as “you are to know the way”.  This is a very short-sighted approach, not only can it help you get about but it is a great talking piece.  You can laugh with the passengers about the crazy way it wants to go or marvel at the advances in technology.  I have had many good conversations about the GPS and let a few people play with it.


   Carry mints in the car, preferably ones which are individually wrapped.  I am not saying that you should offer the mints to passengers.  But after a bit of a drive, about 20 minutes from the cemetery/crematorium people do appreciate the sugar hit.  Be warned, the mints pose a choking hazard, and some might be allergic, so do not offer them to people.  What i recommend is mentioning the crazy OH&S, having a laugh about it and then happening to point out where they are while mentioning that you would never notice if a few went missing.  Just do not offer them to people.


   Always be understanding of the families.  They are in a bad situation, going to a loved ones funeral.  Most will be nice, and most people are good at heart, but a rare few can be bad or just strange.  For more examples of this read about some of my various experiences.  However in those situations my advice is to sit quietly and just do your job, answer direct questions and make conversation if appropriate.


   When making conversation avoid topics such as politics, beliefs/practices, the funeral industry, cost of the job, etc.  If it is brought up by the passengers then go for it within reason.  For example many people bring up the topic of the funeral industry and while I am quite open about it I understand others do not necessarily need or want to hear the details.  So just try to be honest but brief.


   After the funeral and if you are taking the family back to their drop-off you will often find flowers being out in your boot.  Make sure you do not forget to return them to the family, last thing you want is to be racing back to a wake or gathering to return something you forgot.  To help you remember place a petal on your dashboard.  And get into the habit of checking the dash for petals before you say your goodbyes.  Also when the family are exiting the car for the last time check it quickly for anything they might have forgotten, such as glasses, bags, etc.  If they leave something behind in your car you will most likely be the one racing out to return it.


   If you can, place a few order of service booklets into the care before you pickup the passengers.  They will appreciate being able to read it on the way to the service.  However this is rare as they are usually the ones to bring the booklets.  But when you arrive at the service it is a good idea to grab about 4 booklets and hide them in the car for the family.  That way if they run out you can give them extra to ‘send to those who couldn’t make it today’ which they will really appreciate.


   In the end remember that when driving a car as a funeral company you are not really a hire car driver.  You are to keep the family happy which happens to involve driving them.  So always be ready to help them when needed, do not just sit back and drive them about



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