What is a Funeral Director?

    What a funeral director or undertaker is may appear to be simple or obvious.  But it is surprising how many people get it wrong.  Unless they have been in or heavily around the industry many are quite wrong about = the industry.  What our roles are, our responsibilities, what happens, who runs things and so on.  Thus I have decided to put together a brief post about what a funeral director actually is.  I will cover some other roles in the industry, but the focus is on funeral directors.

    The public perspective is that the undertaker will organise the funeral, bring the coffin to the funeral, then to the grave or crematorium and that is basically it.  This is fairly wrong.  To start a 'funeral director' can mean and involve many different things.  Once a mortician at a major hospital was telling me about the family of a deceased believing funeral directors were a rip off and un-necessary.  As such they wanted to do everything themselves and save the thousands it costs to hire an undertaker.  However he refused to release the body from the hospital as they did not have an appropriate vehicle.  They had bought a station-wagon just for the job.  But you need more than this, there are actual regulations and laws about what a vehicle needs to transfer a body, which a normal car does not meet.  So they had the car modified specially, now it met the qualifications but he still could not release the body as they had incorrect papers.  Then the family had issues with the cemetery.  Finally they got a funeral director after much expense and waisted time.  So obviously there is more to the role than just filling some forms and carrying a coffin.

I will break down the funeral director's role in order of action from beginning to end.

Arranging the funeral: The arrangers are often experienced funeral directors who will go to the family's house and organise what they want on the funeral.  From the coffin and flowers to printing the orders of service and buying the grave plot or booking the crematorium.  They will book everyone and everything needed and just make sure it is all organised.

- Collecting the body: Firstly the funeral staff have to actually collect the body (through a process called a transfer).  It could involve collecting the body from a hospital, crime scene, home, nursing home or just about anywhere else you can think of.

- Preparing the body: A lot of people have wishes for what they want done to their body when they die.  And many are not willing or able to carry out these wishes on a loved one.  This may involve just dressing the deceased in certain clothing.  Or it could involve embalming the body for long-distance trips or for a crypt.  The body is placed in the coffin in this stage as well.

- Driving: The hearse is long, big and heavy.  It is best thought of as a small low truck or bus.  And somebody has to drive it, after all, not many funerals do not have a hearse.  While the hearse is almost always essential it is often not the only car used on the funeral.  This is what a lot of people do not realise until they are involved in a funeral.  Funeral directors also supply and often drive 'family/mourning cars' for close family and friends to travel in.  It is basically a hire car driver role, not as much of a job as a real HC driver, but still very similar.

- Working the funeral: Although people see funeral directors at the funeral not many people actually look or remember the undertaker.  The funeral staff often have light-hearted chats or jokes with the public, so it is not due to a 'morbid' or 'taboo' reasoning.  Funeral staff will get people to sign the condolence book, carry the coffin, assist with the ceremony (religious or otherwise), direct people to the facilities such as toilets, help less mobile people in/out, direct people to parking if needed and much more.  There is a lot going on behind the scenes on funerals, and the funeral directors do it all.

- Conducting the funeral: This is separate as it is a separate role and even position.  Conductors get paid more and are responsible for everything on the day of the funeral.  The rest of the funeral staff do not see them much, turning to the hearse driver instead.  This is because the conductor will spend more time with the family or celebrant(s) and be unable to organise things out at the front of the funeral.  But everything that happens on a funeral is ultimately the responsibility of the conductor.

- Carrying the coffin at the cemetery/crematorium: Sometimes people will carry on a funeral, however it is not something I would bet on with most funerals.  Instead the funeral directors will carry the coffin about.  However even if the family and/or friends do carry at the first part of the service they are unlikely to do so at the grave side of crematorium.  They realise how heavy the coffin can be.  How those handels, while pretty, are incredibly awkward and painful to hold.  Then they look at the long, uneven and sometimes narrow distance needed to carry along.  And they decline, falling quietly into the crowed.  So yes, the funeral director will often end up carrying at some part of the service.

    That is about it.  There is more to the role, but nothing important or relevant.  This is basically the job of a funeral director.  Undertakes can however have less roles.  By this I mean they can specialise, such as only doing transfers, or only doing mortuary work, or only driving the hearse.

    There are many odd misconceptions surrounding the role of a funeral director.  The most common is confusing funeral directors with grave diggers or crematorium staff.  I was once told by a very strange man who I was driving on a funeral that he had a lot of ties with funeral directors.  As a doctor he had met a lot, which is usually untrue, we do not meet many of the 'competition' in the health service unless it is in a mortuary.  He also said that although this was the first funeral he had been to he talked with many funeral directors over the years.  And that he knew we buried the bodies after the service at the grave so he would have time for a fe coffees while I buried his brother.  I pictured myself, in my three piece suit, with a shovel in the middle of a grave.  No matter how much I informed him otherwise he was convinced I would be the one to burry his brother.  This is so wrong, the grave diggers burry the coffin.  And they are qualified tradesmen/gardeners.  You will see them at the cemetery with their workers fluro shirts or driving trucks.  They have nothing to do with the body and we have nothing to do with it after the service.


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