Misconceptions & Questions - Part 3

    I thought it was about time I did another misconceptions and questions post.  To fix some errors and answer some questions I have received recently.    Here are 15 short misconceptions and questions I have either come across recently or regularly.

Misconceptions & Questions - Part 1

Misconceptions & Questions - Part 2

Misconceptions & Questions - Part 3

Complete List of misconceptions & questions

About the funeral home and undertakers

- Funeral homes are family run:
    While there are several funeral homes that are family businesses they are not all this way.  Think of the funeral home as a business, a company, not as a "home".  It is a service industry, like many places and is run as a business.  A funeral home is a company, it makes a business out of selling funerals.  So no, the vast majority of funeral companies are not family owned or operated.  Big international companies like InvoCare exist.

Those who work in the funeral industry are strange or morbid:
    This is not the case, well it is, but not because it is the funeral industry!  Any large group of people contains 'strange' people, the funeral industry staff are no stranger than people in any other industry.  In fact most in the industry are less morbid than those outside the industry.

Do you need qualifications to became a funeral director or undertaker?
    No, you do not need any qualifications for this job.  To become an undertaker, arranger, funeral director, conductor, hearse driver or anything in the funeral industry (except certain jobs such as an embalmer) then you need nothing other than a drivers license.  I would recommend an understanding of Sydney roads, but other than that training is on the job and no requirements needed.

Do you need to mature or older to be an undertaker?
    Not necessarily.  Many people (such as myself) start out in the industry at a 'young' age.  However this is a bit of ageisim against younger people in this industry.  Certain companies only employ older people and there is the perception that with youth there is immaturity.  That "younger people are not suited for this job" as someone once said.

What is the role of the undertaker?
    As Thomas Lynch once said "a good funeral is one that gets the dead where they need to go, and the living where they need to be".  Working with bodies was a big part of the job, but most of the job is dealing with the living, driving mourners about was probably 60-70% of my job.  This is what the undertaker does, they work in a service industry and deal with the living.

About the funeral:

Funerals are always sad:
    This is not true, many funerals I was on were fun happy events, more a celebration than a grieving.  Of course this depends heavily on the culture, age and gender of the mourners.  Yet in most cases the funeral is not a depressing event.

- Is it emotionally difficult?
    Not really.  One thing people do not think of is that the undertaker does not know the deceased or the mourners.  It is rarely a personal thing for the undertaker.  This is because those outside the industry have never been an undertaker, thus they cannot see a funeral from the undertakers perspective.  There are cases where the funeral is emotionally difficult, if it is personal to the undertaker.  Such as when the deceased is similar to someone they care about.  But this is rare and generally the funeral is not a sad event for the undertaker.  This is also because funerals are not always sad events themselves.

Is there an environmentally friendly funeral option?
    This is something I do not know, nor do I get asked about this very often.  There are various 'green' options out there, but they are difficult to access (especially in Australia), or expensive or not what they are meant to be.  A standard wood coffin is often not that bad either, most coffins are made from recycled chipboard.  And they are not treated with too many chemicals.  So the difference between a cardboard coffin (such as LiveArt) and a standard wood coffin is debatable at best.  Thus I do not know if there is a viable environmental option readily available in Australia.

Can I go into the crematorium to see the coffin committed?
    No, as I understand no crematorium in Sydney will let mourners into the back rooms where the retorts (burners) are kept and operate.  It is simply an OH&S issue, as much as the mourners might want to go and see the final processing of the coffin this is an active workspace with moving machinery.  Also sometimes the coffin is not committed until the following day, it might be stored in a special room overnight.

Can a hearse be sent to a transfer (such as a crime scene or hospital?
    Yes, a hearse can be used to pick up a body at any location anytime.  Normally a transfer vehicle is used (such as a white Toyota van) but if there is no transfer car available or there is another reason then the hearse can be used.  While rare for most companies some, such as the Islamic and Jewish funeral homes do this regularly.  I remember an instance where a Jewish funeral home used a hearse for a transfer at Westmead Children's Hospital.  they parked the hearse at the main entrance and went about their business as though it was a regular transfer car.  So it is rare, but happens.

About the body and mortuary:

Everybody is embalmed:
    Embalming is rare ins Australia, unlike America or New Zealand where most bodies are embalmed.  While there is a shortage of embalmers we generally do not embalm many bodies.  Generally the only time we embalm bodies is when they are going into a vault/crypt or going overseas.  This does depend on culture and personal attitudes, some chose to embalm the body.

Does the body smell?
    To answer this ask does the food you cook smell?  Not always, it depends on the specific instance.  obviously decomposed bodies smell, and sometimes when bodies are moved they release smells.  But this is not always the case.

Is the body cold?
    The body is room temperature, so if the room is cold or hot then so is the body.  Most bodies are kept in a fridge, either in the funeral home or in the hospital.  And many nursing homes us a 'holding room' which is a small windowless room at the back to keep the body.  These places are all cold, the holding room might not be as cold as a fridge but it is not as warm as a regular room.  So the bodies generally feel a little cold to the touch.

All bodies have rigor-mortis:
    Not all bodies suffer from rigor-mortis, it is only in specific cases.  And even when bodies do have rigor-mortis it is easily "broken" by bending and moving the joints about.

Is the mortuary messy?
    Working with bodies is not always messy.  It can be, depending on the body, but generally one has gloves and an apron on in the mortuary.  Even if the body is messy the staff rarely get dirty or messy.  The transfer is another matter as the transfer staff only have gloves, nothing else.

Bonus questions!
    Here's a few random extra questions and misconception because why not;

Is it illegal to cut off a funeral procession?
    Yes, it is quite serious and illegal to cut off a funeral procession.  This is something I want to write a whole post on properly later.  But basically in NSW Australia the fine is quite high, a few hundred dollars and they take points off your license (if I remember right).  The current police commissioner of   NSW is very into respect for the funeral.  The funeral procession generally has right of way except at traffic lights.  However, this law is note really enforced as it would need a cop to be there at the time and would be hard to prove happened.  So while illegal it happens all the time, most people do not mean to cut off a funeral procession, they are simply passing slow cars.

Can I buy and drive a hearse?
    Yes, there is no special license or requirement to own or operate a hearse.  Although I would not recommend it.  Hearses use custom large glass panels, which are incredibly expensive to replace or repair.  They are also long and impractical to drive or park and heavy so they eat fuel.  Another issue is that hearses are custom made, and not every company pays money for quality.  One hearse was famous in InvoCare for bending and twisting when going over a bump or dip.  Furthermore hearses are not often well looked after, they are usually run constantly and heavily before being sold.  They are also expensive to buy second hand as they are very expensive to make.  So yes, you can own and run a hearse, but it is rarely worth it.

The funeral industry is morbid or 'dark':
    No, undertakers either laugh or sigh when people say this.  Sometimes people join the industry because they think it is morbid, dark, cool or whatever.  Then they shortly leave as they realise how mundane it really is.  Being an undertaker is no more morbid or dark than working in retail or an office.  And most undertakers are not morbid people, rather the opposite if anything.

Do undertakers break or remove the legs on a long body to fit it into a coffin?
    No, never!  This is a rare question, but always makes me laugh.  Just the impracticality of it is amusing, how difficult it would be to remove a leg.  Especially when legs can be bent at the knee quite naturally, or one can get a bigger coffin.  To go to all the trouble of removing a leg is amusingly absurd.

- Is it a smelly job and/or industry?
    Yes and no, it depends heavily.  Most times there is not much smell, but if there is it is rarely strong or that unpleasant.  However there are times when it is a smelly job, and one remembers those times well.  A badly decomposed body often has a strong smell about it, a smell which will penetrate into your lungs and nose no matter what you do.

What can you do to help deal with a smelly body?
    By far the best thing to do is to take one or two deep and full breaths.  Inhale the smell as unpleasant as it is.  It is interesting how quickly you will adapt, how just in one or two strong breaths the smell will either vanish or become tolerable.  Doing things like not breathing much, wearing masks, using vaseline under the nose and so on will only make the unpleasantness of the smell last longer.



  1. Anonymous11/6/13 06:40

    I always wondered because I've
    Heard stories over the years
    That morticans they cut the clothes to fit deceased people
    Because of rigor mortis
    I don't know if that is a myth
    Or any truth to that I was
    Considering at one time
    Because I was taking a
    Cosmetology course my
    Speciality would be hair
    & makeup for funeral homes
    I didn graduate though i'm
    Still confused about the clothes are cut or do morticans use
    Mechanical hoists to lift the
    Deceased to put the clothes on them

    1. Clothes are generally not cut, but it depends on the situation. Rigor mortis can be 'broken' (removed) relatively easily in most cases. All you need to do is bend the joints a few times and the losen up back to normal. Plus not every body will have rigor mortis. So clothes can, and will, be put on without any cutting in most cases.

      Having said that, it can be tricky as clothes were made to be put on by the person wearing them. Or to at least get 'some' help from the person wearing them. So it can get a little tricky here and there, especially with shoes. But I find it rare for clothes to be cut.

      Clothes will be cut if they do not fit, lying down and after death the body will change shape a little. It might be wider around the waist or chest, so a shirt might not fit right that would fit perfectly when they were alive. In instances like that the funeral home might cut the back of the clothes then tuck them under the body. Yet this is not that common really.

      Mechanical lifts can be used to put clothes on, but not all funeral homes have them however as they are costly and relatively new. Small and/or older funeral homes tend not to have them. The mechanical lift is a wonderful thing for safety (of the employees) and makes obese or heavy bodies much easier to work with. But you don't need a lift for heavy bodies, an extra pair of hands is sometimes all that's needed.



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