2012-05-01

Working Funerals - Turning the coffin

    At my grandfathers funeral I couldn't help but notice the mistakes the undertakers made when turning the coffin.  The mistakes wren't serious or disrespectful and they went un-noticed to the other mourners.  But after working funerals I saw these little mistakes.  And this made me realise how many mistakes can be made when turning the coffin, so I thought a little guide might help.

    Turning the coffin is a rather important part of the service, and it is a part many overlook or dismiss.  It is also a rather simple procedure that has plenty of room for errors.

    'Turning the' coffin refers to the act of rotating the coffin at the end of a funeral service to take it to the next or final stage.  This is done while family, friends or other mourners are watching and is a part of the service itself.  Mourners or staff can turn the coffin, but it is usually the undertakers who do it.

    Any movement of the coffin is important and potentially emotional for most mourners.  So turning the coffin is very significant for most people.  It is also done infront of many people and its always watched intently.  As such it should always be done right.  Thus an article explaining how to turn the coffin could be helpful to mourners or funeral directors alike.

Here is my step by step guid on how to properly turn a coffin:

Fig1. Getting into position.
1. The hearse driver and other staff member will wait near the coffin before moving over and preparing it. This involves removing any symbols (items placed on top or near the coffin) or obstructions (such as the pascal candle or tables).  As they approach they should bow to the stage or coffin depending on tradition or practice.
Fig2. Getting ready to turn.
2. The staff move into position, the hearse driver goes to the head end and the other staff member goes to the foot end.

3. They pause for a moment and when the hearse driver signals they place their hands on the coffin.

4. The staff want to have a firm but dignified hold of the coffin.  It should not be grabbed and moved like a box or furniture but it does need a firm grasp to keep control.

5. After placing their hands on the coffin the staff pause and again wait for the hearse drivers signal.
Fig 3. Turning the coffin.
6. When the hearse driver signals the staff turn the coffin clockwise.  It must always be turned clockwise! Turning the coffin in this direction represents the passage of time, it is an old and symbolic tradition.

7. It might be necessary to perform a three-point-turn in tight spaces.  There is nothing wrong with this if movements are kept to a minimum where possible.  Be sure to discuss this with the conductor or hearse driver before going up to turn.
Fig 4. Finishing the turn.
8. The assisting staff at the foot end should make sure the coffin is straight.  To do this they pull the coffin down the isle towards them a very short distance.  Never pull the coffin too far in this direction and do not worry about getting the coffin perfectly straight.

9. The staff will move off as previously instructed by the conductor.


Some simple key things to remember are:

-  Pause after approaching the coffin, pause again after placing your hands on it and make a final pause after turning the coffin.  This makes the whole thing appear much more respectful and professional.
-  Look for the hearse drivers signals, move when they move and move as they move.  Again, it will look professional and like you are a team.
-  Do not move too far.  Restrict all movements as much as is practical otherwise mistakes can be made.
-  Flow steadily, do not move suddenly or jerkily.  Think of the process as like a dance, move with a rhythm and do not make sudden or unexpected movements.
If a mistake is made ignore it if you can.  Most mourners will not notice mistakes unless the undertakers make them noticeable.  So if you can get away with a mistake then do so.
Know the crew and other staff.  This is difficult with large companies who change crews and staff often.  But if you can get to know them do so.  It really helped me, to know how and when each hearse driver liked to turn the coffin.  Then I could match their styles and appear more professional and I would notice quicker if something went wrong.  We all have our personal tastes and touches, getting to know these will go a long way.
-  Communicate!  This is perhaps the best and most important thing.  Listen to the conductor and hearse driver.  Do no over discuss what is to happen but make sure everyone is on the same page and you know not only your role but what others are meant to do.  This means if something goes wrong or someone goes missing you can easily step in.

    Just remember not to worry too much about it and if you are unsure of what to do don't do anything.  A great rule for funerals is do nothing if you are unsure.  It is much better to do nothing than do something wrong.  When turning the coffin generally wait to see what the hearse driver or conductor are doing before you act.  And if you are the hearse driver or conductor you should know what you are doing and not really need this guide.

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