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Death and the maidens: Working in the funeral industry

Wednesday 29th April 2015

When Eva Rippon was eight, her grandmother passed away. Kept out of the funeral proceedings, she and the other children in the family didn’t know where she had gone or what had happened to her.

They badgered older family members with questions until, finally, they were allowed to see her at the funeral home where she had been embalmed.

“I remember seeing her: she looked so waxy and just not like herself, so that was strange. I had a sort of curious fascination with it, I suppose, ever since that, and have always been drawn to the [funeral] industry.”

That industry is one that looks set to grow, with 29,568 deaths in New Zealand in 2013 forecasted to hit 50,000 by 2048. The average funeral, depending on who you ask, costs about $8,500, though the sky’s the limit in an industry valued at over $300 million a year, which, according to the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand, employs about 500 people nationwide.

Thirteen years later, we meet Eva on the sunny porch of the Natural Funeral Company, where she’s sweeping the area out the front. It’s a small building, with whitewashed walls and a slight scent of citrus essential oils. With conspicuous candles throughout, along with a lion’s head water-feature out the back, it might be mistaken for a day spa.

She’s worked here for nine months, after four years of ringing round every funeral director she could think of.

“Everything I knew about it I’d learnt from Six Feet Under, which is pretty accurate, actually, but it was a huge shock getting into it." - Eva Rippon

“I was just asking for them to give me the time of day, to ask questions or volunteer my time – a lot of people didn’t respond, but I knew this was where I wanted to be, and so I just kept persisting.

Her now boss, Chris, offered her two weeks’ work experience, which turned into full-time work. Eva’s job encompasses everything from answering phones to washing down the bodies of the deceased to guiding family members through their whizzy in-house iPad app, which helps with the choosing of caskets, catering and flower arrangements.

Most of her training has been on-the-job: learning to dress the body – as if it were a large baby, she says – and flannelling them down; packing iceboxes around the tummy and head; and maintaining a personal connection with the deceased.

“It’s nice when the family are part of the washing. A lot of the time it’s the elderly, and it’s their daughters or their children helping wash them, and they say, ‘Mum used to wash me when I was a baby, and now I feel like I’m doing it for her’.”

Eva makes a point of referring to the deceased by their first name. “Although we realise they’re not alive any more, say we were to bump something, we say, ‘Oh, sorry such-and-such’, so that’s nice – they’re not just a number or another person.”

The learning curve was initially quite steep.

“Everything I knew about it I’d learnt from Six Feet Under, which is pretty accurate, actually, but it was a huge shock getting into it.

“Apparently in the first week of work I would scream in my sleep: I think that was my subconscious dealing with it. I haven’t had nightmares or things like that – it just came naturally.

Apparently in the first week of work I would scream in my sleep: I think that was my subconscious dealing with it

The way she approaches her own life has also changed. “As cliché as it sounds, it really does just change the way you look at things. I think I’m a better friend and daughter and sister because of it.”

At just 21 years of age, Eva has had limited personal experience of death, though she’s learnt to manage the inevitable emotional exhaustion that comes from seeing it first-hand every day.

“It’s very important that we have some kind of outlet, otherwise it does get to you, and it does weigh you down. I like going for walks or cooking: swimming in the ocean’s incredible as well. There’s something about it that just cleanses you.

“We also have processes here - we have a lot of pagan rituals that we do - we burn lavender and sage, and that cleanses the air. We also drip water on our heads, and it just makes you feel better, I think.”

She’s also had to learn how to mitigate other people’s response to it, especially when meeting prospective partners.

“I tend to hold off for a while before I say what I do – sometimes I’ve said I’m involved in event management. It’s not entirely a lie, but it’s kind of holding back from the truth. I think people expect you to smell like death, or something. People are kind of surprised when they find out what I do, and realise I’m actually a normal person.”

The ability to leave work at work is something which Vaughan Chapman, a 28-year-old embalmer at Davis Funerals, also tries to maintain.

“You can’t get emotionally attached to the job – when I come to work, I’m here to work, and I try not to take anything back home with me. When I step my foot out the door, that’s the end of the day. I don’t think about the people I’ve looked after, or any sad stories – I leave it at work and enjoy the rest of my life.”

New Zealand has a high suicide rate, I would say, and seeing young kids coming through that have committed suicide is not a nice thing about the job.

Vaughan’s father ran a successful funeral company in South Africa, which he began working in at the age of 18, after he finished school. At 23, he moved to New Zealand and got a job doing removals in the casket room. He was ‘pushed into the mortuary’, studied at WelTec, and now works full-time as an embalmer.

Embalming – the process of preserving a body – requires a particular set of skills. “Chemistry, microbiology – getting our right calculations down to embalm loved ones in a way that will last until the burial or cremation.” The focus, he says, is on giving family members a ‘pleasurable viewing experience.’

Vaughan particularly enjoys hearing feedback from the families: “When they come and see their loved ones, how they are joyed by the fact of how good they look. A lot of the deceased don’t die in a happy way. After embalming, we can set the features in a way where we give the family a pleasurable viewing experience. I guess that’s what drives me from day to day.”

Sometimes the circumstances of death can be emotionally challenging, which makes getting the embalming process right even more important.

“New Zealand has a high suicide rate, I would say, and seeing young kids coming through that have committed suicide is not a nice thing about the job. You think what a long life they could have had.”

Perhaps as a result of his father’s work in the industry, Vaughan is keen to stress that it is, for him, just another job. It’s something his (improbably named) fiancée, Marissa Deadman, can appreciate: she too works as an embalmer at Davis. They met at a meeting, and eighteen months down the line, are due to get married next month.

“It’s not a normal job, but to me, growing up, knowing it, being around it – it is just like another job. I come in to work, get people’s loved ones embalmed, and dressed, and looking good. To me, it’s like going to work at a supermarket, being a teller or what have you.”

"I’d make Nana hang around for another couple of hours or so, just walking around everyone else’s grave, having a look." - Troy Rehua

Vaughan’s colleague, Troy Rehua, who is 20, is the prep supervisor at Davis, though he hopes in time to move into embalming. For now, he focuses on putting the deceased into the system, making sure they’re where they need to be, and trimming caskets.

As we walk into the workshop room, I notice boxes of gold clips and ornaments – a ‘Rest in Peace’ badge, crucifixes of different shapes and sizes, handles of varying degrees of splendor. Troy attaches these on to the coffins, along with nameplates, which he also engraves.

Unlike Eva, for whom it was a lifelong dream, or Vaughan, who had a family connection, Troy fell into the industry almost by accident at 17 through a work experience placement called Gateway.

“Mum first suggested it when I was about 15, and I didn’t really take much notice of it then, but when I saw the program at my school, I put two and two together and I tried the funeral industry. I approached Davis Funerals, they took me on, and I’ve been here ever since.”

He acknowledges, however, that as a ‘young nipper’ he did have a particular interest in death, despite having very limited interaction with it.

“As a young kid, my nana would look after me, and she’d take me to see her mum at Purewa Cemetery. I’d make Nana hang around for another couple of hours or so, just walking around everyone else’s grave, having a look.”

As time’s gone on, when people have become unwell, just learning that it’s not my fault – it’s a cancer, or whatever disease they’ve got, that’s doing it

He remembers his first day of work experience as being, understandably, ‘weird’, though says he adapted quickly, after spending the day “washing bodies; massaging the fluid through into the fingers; closing the eyes and the mouth.”

His friends, though initially a little disquieted by his career choice, are now quick to tell new acquaintances about Troy’s job, often beating him to it. “They’re always: ‘Oh, this is the guy I’ve been telling you about.’”

Troy says he knows that he’s found his calling. “It’s all become second nature to me. It’s like my second home, really.”

And choosing the specifics of his own funeral? Too morbid? “Grand! Real grand. I see it as your last statement on earth.”

While Eva, Vaughan and Troy spend each day surrounded by the company of the deceased, 29-year-old nurse Kate Yeoman helps people in the final chapters of their life, as a registered nurse at Mercy Hospice. She began working on Auckland Hospital’s oncology ward at 20, and moved to the hospice at 22 after a long-term interest in palliative care.

She usually has between two and four patients, for whom she manages “medications, washes, position changes, general hygiene cares.”

Kate is exceptionally, strikingly, calm, and I’m unsurprised to learn that she went into nursing after friends and family suggested she might be good at it. That calm exterior hides a steely core, which she acknowledges is something she’s picked up over the course of her twenties.

It’s made me appreciate the simpler things in life - if you’ve had a few days at work that have been a bit rougher, then you have some days off where you do really enjoy being around your friends and family

“Looking back, it was probably harder when I started. As time’s gone on, when people have become unwell, just learning that it’s not my fault – it’s a cancer, or whatever disease they’ve got, that’s doing it.”

She acknowledges that there is a necessary distance between staff and patients: “We are aware that they are terminally ill, so you probably do have a bit of a boundary there – it’s not like your close friend or family member that you’ve known all of their life, while they’ve been well and healthy.”

The hardest bit of the job, she says, isn’t losing a patient. “What’s probably harder is if you have someone whose symptoms are difficult to manage, or you’ve got a patient who’s distressed for other reasons. When you have someone that passes away peacefully, that doesn’t feel as hard as when you struggle with the management of their symptoms.”

Some patients will want to talk about death, while others aren’t ready to confront it. “Some don’t want to accept it, and that’s alright – it’s just about helping them along with wherever they are in their journey. People are quite often worried about being in pain.”

Kate says that dealing with death so regularly has made her more comfortable with it.

“I think overall it’s made me more at peace with it, though it’s something I hope I won’t have to deal with for some time. It’s made me appreciate the simpler things in life - if you’ve had a few days at work that have been a bit rougher, then you have some days off where you do really enjoy being around your friends and family.

“I think it does just give you that new appreciation.”



Join the discussion »

“Thanks for sharing this story with us. I think it's difficult to be a funeral director these days. Everyone seems to want something different which can make it very difficult to get things just right. It's important to make sure that these people can keep doing what they do though. http://www.tonyhollandsfunerals.com.au” — Sergio


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