Inside the funeral home: Walter Carter Funerals

    A while ago I spent a couple of hours with the CEO of Walter Carter Funerals.  It wasn't a study so much as a meeting.  But I learnt a lot and had a great time.  The CEO is incredibly knowledgeable  approachable and open.  No question or topic was inappropriate.

    I haven't included photos in this post.  Basically my photos were limited to public areas, and Walter Carter already has better pictures of these areas on their website.  So if you want to see what the place looks like go to the site.  They are fairly accurate pictures which I feel do display what it feels like to be there.  Thus my photos would be a tad pointless here.

    Also, this was not so much a 'study' as an extended and informal meeting.  The boss and I talked extensively, sharing a very positive and informative dialogue.  I do feel she was honest and open with me, there was no hesitation with my questions and she showed me around the place.  So while not a study exactly I do feel like I got a decent and honest picture of Walter Carter.

Funeral Home as a Business:
    The boss of Walter Carter is a fifth generation funeral director however she worked in real-estate sector for quite a while.  So when she returned to the funeral industry she brought with her an outside perspective.  Viewing the funeral home as a business and running it as such.  This has meant Walter Carter constantly seeks to provide new and different services to gain more profit and care for mourners.  In many ways it was an interesting and perfect example of why profit is not a bad thing in the funeral industry.

    The literature and booklets handed out by Walter Carter are actually quite good.  I have a nice pile of various things handed out by different funeral companies.  Most of it is fairly standard, for example the Guardian stuff is basic text in a plain brochure talking about grief and loss.  The Walter Carter stuff is different, from design to style.  The language used feels different, less distant and more personal, which is a nice touch.  But the design is also very different and stands out.  In fact, much of the stuff at Walter Carter looked and felt very unique and unlike anything else the industry was doing.  For example, their CD case was a cardboard booklet which when opened had the CD slowly pop out.  This made the CD easier to take out, better protected when closed and was really cool.

    Something else I noticed was that the boss was downplayed in the brochures.  She had her picture here and there, but not on the front of anything and not as the main focus.  Many other funeral homes use the boss as "the face of the company" heavily.  Despite the fact that most mourners will never meet this person, thus it has no meaning or relevance to them.  But not Walter Carter, their funeral staff are the focus of the advertisements, the ones who the family actually interact with.  It is a nice touch that actually personalises the company quite well.  Something I will go into more detail on shortly.

    These little individualities come from Walter Carter operating as a business, and not restricting itself as a funeral home.

Funeral Home as a Family:
    Oddly enough Walter Carter also operates like one big family.  The family of the boss are involved in various aspects of the business.  And the business runs like a family, a community.  Above the main Walter Carter offices are a few levels of apartments.  These are for the employees to live in, which is a wonderful idea for this type of company.  It is convenient for staff, if called out late on a transfer they only need go down stairs.  This type of work can get into ones personal life, as undertakers sometimes have to work weekends and after hours.  So this is convenient and practical for staff.

    It also seves a more important and indirect purpose   This is a wonderful support system for the staff and their families.  Just outside their door are others who know their troubles, know what the job is like and can help out if needed.  While I was there someone came in with a pram and child, her husband worked and lived at the funeral home.  The boss greeted her like family, like one of her own and she greeted the boss in a similar way.  This style of setup would give a wonderful support network to everyone living there.  From my perspective this is an incredibly rich concept to explore.  A sense of community and support born out of a shared experience, a shared occupation and a shared living place.

    I also noticed the staff appeared to have no issue talking in front of the boss.  There was no awkwardness or hesitation because of her presence, at least that I saw.  I did not see much of how the business operated, or talked with staff without the boss.  But I get an impression that it is a relatively positive and tight group.  Possibly more than just co-workers.

    Since the meeting I have told a few undertakers about how Walter Carter runs as a family like this.  Most think it is a wonderful idea, one even asked if they had any vacancies.  While a lovely idea in theory I found myself unsure about the practice.  How living and working in close quarters could cause issues.  This is certainly an area that deserves more study and could be quite rich.

    Walter Carter choses some rather interesting imagery styles.  This company choses to show funeral staff more than the boss, rare for a funeral home.  But they do not 'promote' the individual staff exactly. They highlight them, giving each individual staff member their own photo and space in the advertisements.  But it is done through the framework of the company, through Walter Carter.  It is more giving a face to the company, making them the representatives of Walter Carter.  Rather than glorifying or promoting the individual employee who happens to work at Walter Carter.

    Another notable thing is that there are few pictures of a hearse or flowers.  When there are pictures with these things they are still not the focus of the picture.  For example, one image shows an employee standing behind a hearse.  Only part of the hearse is visible as the focus is completely on the employee.

    The use of colour was also rather striking.  Most photos, especially the ones of staff, are in black and white.  They also use relatively strong contrast and bright lighting.  Compared with the colour theming and surrounding of the photos.  Which used colours, was darker and had lower levels of contrast.  The two styles combined rather nicely, to make the photos stand out compared with the company colours.  Which in turn only made the company colours more noticeable.

    It also says a lot about Walter Carter and their attitudes.  That they have gone for more emphasis on the staff than other things like the hearse.  Many companies show off their hearse, it becomes the badge for the company and thus becomes an indirect focus of the company marketing.  But as the boss at Walter Carter said, most mourners are concerned with the colour of the hearse and that's it.

    Walter Carter is one of the most innovative funeral homes I have interacted with.  The company is not just innovative in spirit, they actually push for and try new things.  There are so many little ideas at work there that were quite good.  For example along the wall of the arranging room are several order of service templates.  Pre-printed order of services that families can chose from or customise if they like.  Walter Carter has a special deal with the printer and these are their own exclusive designes.  Plus the designes were nice, simple yet elegant.

    Another innovative thing of theirs is the website.  The boss told me how she turned to non-funeral businesses when thinking of how to design the website.  Another aspect of her outside perspective perhaps.  They looked at companies who had an image or style that they wanted to emulate, such as department stores.  Simply elegant.  As such they have quite a nice little site, yet they intend to overhaul it already.  She was telling me how every few years they completely redesign it before it gets old.  Many companies unfortunately wait until they are pushed into redesigning the site.  This is because they do not realise five years on the internet is the equivalent of a generation.  Five years ago the internet was very different to what we know today.  Walter Carter realises this, and is being quite active in keeping up.

    There is no coffin display room at Walter Carter, many of the newer funeral homes are doing away with these.  Most mourners are happy with pictures, so it frees space and time for other things.  The boss told me how if a mourner wanted to see a coffin in person they would simply bring it up to the chapel.  Instead of a coffin display room Walter Carter used iPads, which they also used to show other things.  I thought this was a good and novel idea for a funeral company.  But apparently it is old for Walter Carter, who have been using iPads like this since they first came out in 2010.

    Walter Carter also have a rather novel and useful idea for the future.  I cannot go into detail, but it is quite unlike anything I have seen other funeral companies doing.  So I am almost excitedly waiting in anticipation to see how to do it.  Hopefully they do it right (which I suspect they will), either way Walter Carter is a company I will be keeping a very close eye on for a while.

    Overall the attitudes at Walter Carter were surpassingly modern and progressive.  Many funeral companies like Lady Anne Funerals are also modern and trying new things.  But Walter Carter had more innovative background ideas than the other companies.  The ideas that formed the foundation of the business.

Information Gathering:
    One thing that particularly interested me was how Walter Carter goes about collecting information.  They do not send out surveys like most funeral homes.  Most funeral homes will send a survey to the immediate family, to rate their performance and collect various bits of information.  Different funeral homes have a different focus on their surveys.  For example the Lady Anne Funerals survey is geared to personal performance of staff and the company and uses quantitative data.  While the WNBull Funerals survey is not particularly focused on one thing and uses more qualitative data.

    However, Walter Carter has no survey at all.  Instead the boss told me that one way she learns about staff and company performance through the conductor sheet and what her staff tell her.  That she encourages them to be negative or positive, and would prefer to hear the 'bad' things so they can be fixed.  She told me this infront of another staff member.  I watched the other staff member, they did not appear to act with surprise or anything of the sort.  In fact they acted as though it were common knowledge and almost ignored it.  Combining this reaction with the bosses overall attitude and other statements I found myself believing it.

    This says a lot about two key things; attitude to staff and attitude to information gathering.  That the boss trusted and encouraged staff to be honest and open.  In both a personal and professional way.  And that the boss was looking for alternative methods to gather information.

    It was a very interesting attitude of Walter Carter, to not use surveys.  But it also demonstrated the significant difference in our roles and perspectives.  I as a student studying the industry turn to surveys and interviews quite often.  But for the funeral home these might no-longer be the best ways to gather information.

The Unsettling Line:
    Overall there were fairly few restrictions on what I could do an see.  The boss was more than happy to take me into all the back areas, showing me around the premises.  However, I was not allowed to take any photos of the mortuary or similar back areas.  Things like the public spaces and the garage were fine, but not the mortuary.  This was because as she would rather not feed thousands of "morbid curiosities" and offend or upset one family.

    It was a stark reminder of how touchy this topic can be.  For some (such as myself) there is no harm or issue in anything.  But for many others they feel a certain discomfort or unease.  It is something I genuinely forget to consider sometimes.  Yet clearly it was very important to the boss of Walter Carter for two main reasons.

    The first reason was a private one, that she did not want to upset anyone.  Through our discussion I got a strong sense that she genuinely cared for the mourners and deceased.  Quite often her focus was on providing a useful sand personal service to people.  For example, she talked of how the lighting in the arranging room was inconvenient and costly, but made people comfortable.  Demonstrating how she would rather be inconvenienced and spend more to make mourners a little more comfortable.

    The second reason was a business one.  The funeral industry relies heavily on word of mouth, one offended person or family could do a lot of damage.  I remember a study from years ago which found one unhappy customer will tell an average of seven people about their bad experience.  Unfortunately I cannot find this study again, but even if untrue it is an important finding.  We see similar things in surveys, respondents tend to be either extremely positive or extremely negative.  They are the ones who wanted to do the survey, wanted to share what they thought.  The funeral industry is very dependent on this word of mouth, it is still a major source of customers.  So to offend one person could potentially spread a bad image, which would discourage future customers.

    When I discussed this with a few friends a couple said how they do feel uncomfortable with some of these things.  For example, one person said the image of a hearse, even without a coffin inside, makes her uneasy as it is symbolic of death and the funeral.  To me the hearse is a pretty vehicle, not much different to a vintage or fancy car.  But to her it is very representative of a lot of unpleasant thoughts and feelings.  Another friend told me how images and discussion of graves makes her uneasy, as again they represent something more to her.  I often forget about this, how these things that are no bother to me can be a source for such discomfort for others.  It was a good reminder of the fine line I walk when exploring the industry.  Balancing between description and unease.  It was not a line the boss of Walter Carter cared to risk crossing.  So understandably she limited what I could take photos of for this reason.

    I found it interesting that a funeral home and boss so open to a study, so positive of the idea, had this restriction.  So far about 90% of the funeral companies I have contacted have refused to let me do a study of them.  Yet the 10% who have said yes have been incredibly positive and receptive of the idea. It was odd to have Walter Carter so positive and open, then have this restriction.  But it was quite understandable.  As a student studying the industry offending someone is not a big concern.  But for a business or person working in the industry it is much more important.

Behind the Scenes:
    While I could not take photos I can describe what it was like behind the front of house.  Walter Carter is a great funeral home, they have a high standard equivalent to what I experienced at Lady Anne Funerals.

    The mortuary was actually exactly what I picture a mortuary should look like.  The Lady Anne mortuary was incredibly clean, the ESMP mortuary was filled with high tech stuff.  But Walter Carter fitted my preconceptions best, it felt and looked as a mortuary should in my mind.  Being an older and more busy funeral home there were signs of wear in the mortuary.  Yet the place was clean, and this wear was only superficial at best.  If anything it gave the place a sense of life, that it was active and that people worked here regularly.  These marks were not damage so much as indications of history and the essence of staff who worked there.  It reminded me of a student paper on presence on trains.  How things like fingerprints on glass showed people had been there, that the place was busy and alive even when empty.

    Walter Carter is in the process of renovations, so the new mortuary will be even fancier apparently.  On one hand this is good, that they will have more capacity and more equipment.  Yet it is sad as it will lose this history and essence built up over time in the old mortuary.  But progression means change, renewal.  If Walter Carter is to grow and evolve they will have to change and evolve the place.  Just as the staff are doing daily with their ideas and attitudes.

Final Thoughts:
    Overall I had a wonderful chat with the boss, we shared a lot of views and she was very open and honest.  It was a very positive and informative discussion.  Plus what I learned of Walter Carter was quite impressive.  It appears to be a progressive and innovative company, that cares for staff and mourners and is genuinely focused on a quality and personal service.

    Hopefully Walter Carter and I will have a rewarding and long relationship.  As from an anthropology  perspective this is a wonderfully rich company.

More Information:
    The company website does a decent job of showing and explaining the company.  If you want to know more about Walter Carter then follow the links below.

Company website.

Contact details:
Address: 302 Oxford St Bondi Junction NSW 2022
Phone: (02) 9389 3499
Fax: (02) 9387 8658

Contact page.


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