Ignoring the Dead & the Consequences

    One of the biggest issues with the funeral industry is a lack of thought or discussion about it.  Not because it is a taboo or inappropriate subject, but for other reasons such as a lack of information and an odd idea that others find it upsetting or taboo.  This lack of discussion leds to serious issues and deregulation.

    Many argue that it is a 'hidden industry' and that most people do not want to know about it.  Either that it is taboo, upsetting or just something to keep quiet.  However I disagree with this entirely.  People are almost always quite happy to talk about it, and actually really interested in the industry.  This is why it started 'The Other Side of Funerals', to feed people the information they crave.

    It was almost surprising the first time I saw the white Toyota van and was told that it was the transfer vehicle.  It was very unexpected to find out that the body is picked up and brought to the funeral home in the back of a Toyota Hiace van.  What was more surprising is how I had never actually thought about this. About how the body is moved about, I knew they would die in hospital then turn up in a coffin at the funeral.  Everything in the middle was an absence, an area I had never avoided because I had never even considered it.  And I think this is the case for most people.  It is not a topic we avoid thinking or talking about, but a topic we never think or talk about.

    When driving families whilst on funerals I never brought up the topic of how the industry worked.  But it was surprising how often and keenly the family asked me about it.  Especially once they realised that I would be open, honest and still quite diplomatic and not graphic about the industry.  One would consider this to be an inappropriate time to discuss these things.  Here they are, in a black car following a hearse containing the body of their loved one.  Yet they always appreciated it, now knowing for sure that their loved one had been treated respectfully and what the basics of the process was.  I never once had a bad reaction from those who asked about the industry.

    A certain mortician at Westmead Hospital once told me about how the hospital had an open day one a year.  And once the heads of the hospital had asked if the mortuary would be appropriate or possible to include in tours.  The mortuary staff agreed, saying they had no issue with showing and explaining to people about the mortuary.  Then the first open day rolled around which would include the mortuary, the staff did not thinking many of the public would be willing or interested.  Yet they had too many people, the day was scheduled to shut at 16:00 and he said they were still letting people inside well after 19:00.  It was a huge success and very popular.  So popular in fact that the hospital then started regular tours, first focusing on bringing people from the military, police, fire brigade and so on, the aim was to let them experience a body and understand the mortuary.  But after a while the mortuary staff put a stop to the tours as they were becoming a 'freak show'.  The hospital even went as far as to invite young boy scouts to see the bodies and mortuary.  So the public is so keen and willing to see a mortuary.

    This defies what I have experienced at most hospitals.  Mortuaries are never labelled on maps or the doors, the only two exceptions I know of being Concorde and Westmead.  Instead the mortuary is down a corridor at the end of a car park and behind doors that look as though they lead to a closet.  Hospitals do their best to hid the fact that they have a mortuary, almost as though admitting its existence would be telling the patients that they will die.  They hide the mortuary as though they are hiding the fact of death within their hospital.  Yet the one time that I know of where they publicised its existence and even held tours it was hugely popular.

    Because we never think of the industry there are a lot of areas and processes which exist, yet are unknown.  They are blankes in how we think.  perhaps the best example in the movement of the body; tehy die in a nursing home and arrive at the funeral already in a coffin.  But how did this happen, how did they make it to the funeral home or into the coffin?  You probably do not know and yet it happens every day.

    There is a lot of misunderstanding about the industry.  Because many do not know much about it they believe the strangest things.  A great one is that gravediggers steal belongings from coffins, a really odd idea.  They barely have time to eat lunch let alone open a whole coffin on the chance that they would get something of value.  Or that undertakers will break a persons legs to fit them in the coffin when breaking legs involves so much work compared to bending them (you bend your legs all the time when you walk or sit, it is not hard), or getting just a bigger coffin.

    But why is it such a hidden and misunderstood industry?  If we are not against talking about it then why do we never actually talk about it?  I have heard many argue that it is a taboo topic, something inappropriate to discuss.  These people then go on to argue how this is changing over time and the industry is now more 'appropriate' to talk about.  While this may have once been true it is no longer the case these days at all.  As I said before, people are really interested in the industry and very rarely take offence to anything said.  There are two reason I believe people do not know about funerals.  The first being that they think others will be offended or find in inappropriate or upsetting.  Discussing how a body is moved and handled could upset someone whose loved one recently died.  And yet this is rarely if ever the case.  People are often more interested as they now have been involved in the process.  Plus they like to know how their loved one was treated.  The second reason is that people have little information about the industry.  How many know someone who works as an undertaker, gravedigger or another similar role?  How many have read a book or seen a movie about the funeral industry and not just one set in the industry?  There is actually rather little information or acknowledgement of the industry.

    So now you might be asking what the result of this lack of knowledge leads to.  Well, it has a direct and serious impact on the industry as a whole.  The first, and most important to many, case is with hospitals.  They hid the morgue for various reasons and this lets the place be mis-managed.  Most hospitals have decent morgues, clean enough and organised well enough.  I have noticed that those with dedicated and full-time staff are by far the best, especially compared to just having casual support staff who take care of the morgue along with many other duties.  Westmead is a good example, with dedicated staff who are responsible for everything they are also proud of everything.  The place is so neat and clean that the blue floors would be more hygienic than your kitchen stove.  With not even a paint chip or scuff mark to be seen then place is actually really nice inside.  At Westmead they also signpost the location of the mortuary, not hiding it from anyone.  However RPA there is no sign to identify it, the mortuary is located in the middle of a service corridor, scuff marks along the walls, rubbish and food processing nearby.  The support staff are always late to arrive, often making funeral staff wait an hour or more, which is then tacked onto the cost of the funeral for the family.  RPA is hated by many in the industry (myself included) and we would never want to have a loved one die in that hospital.  And it use to be worse, much worse.  The old mortuary was even more run-down and mis-managed to the point where they found a dead baby behind a fridge when renovating.  Hiding the mortuary lets problems bread and does not help anyone.

    Another issue from a lack of thought is the deregulation of the industry.  If one wants to become a funeral director all they really need is a briefcase, phone, fax and computer.  Everything else from mortuary to hearse and even staff can be leased out for the day by these "briefcase funeral directors".  The result is that they have little control or influence in the process, allowing for all kinds of misconduct and mistakes.  It was actually rather amusing but when I started in the industry it was discovered that a small catering company who had never organised a funeral got given an important state funeral in Canberra.  Obviously they were the lowest bidder andas such who knows what the funeral was like.  There are no qualifications or credentials needed to join the funeral industry, if you want to join all you should have is a drivers license, and even that is optional.  This deregulation is also having an impact in transfers.  I have heard stories from funeral directors where they have done police transfers, pulling bodies out of cars or taking them from the crime scene to the coroners.  And all they get is a regular suit and a pair of latex gloves.  Appart from the gloves there is little to no protective equipment.  It is not like the movies, or like America, where the coroners has a special and dedicated transfer crew.  Instead in Australia it is just a local funeral home who will take the body from one place to the next.  Yes, just a couple of undertakers working for minimum wage, with no training and no protective equipment are the ones who transfer bodies about.

    Overall the funeral industry is a hidden and unknown one.  But not because it is taboo so much as people do not know about it and some think it will offend people.  This lack of public knowledge lends room for misconduct and deregulation.  No qualifications or training is needed to become a funeral director or transfer bodies from crime scenes or anywhere else.  If the public would look at the industry a little closer regulations which are desperately needed could be introduced.  The public would also find the work and processes to be a lot less upsetting, taboo or grose than thought.


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