Things I’ve learnt about funerals, dying and grief

There’s no timeline for grieving

My general nature would have loved to find out some sort of formula of a timeline for things feeling better. No such luck. The ‘one year’ rule is a fallacy – sure, you have to experience all those firsts,…

The laws aren’t extensive. And they’re state based

So the NSW law obligates all dead bodies to be put into a coffin (or casket, more on that later) – whether they are being buried or cremated. And… most coffins are wooden and highly varnished. The wicker coffins, or matted wool, are lined in plastic anyhow – let’s be honest, decomposition results in fluids. Coffins vs caskets? Well, I’m still not 100% on this, but they are different profiles – a casket is a true rectangle. And they often have a hinged lid that’s split in two. A coffin is tapered, and has a lid laid on top and screwed shut.

The laws are strict once a body is in our care, so before that, you can have your deceased with you at home. Before a funeral director collects a body, no matter where from, a medical cause of death must be completed by a doctor in person. It can be a GP, or it can be someone within a hospital or nursing home. Some cultures have their deceased overnight to say last goodbyes. Even when ‘in care’ – they can be without refrigeration for eight hours, allowing for vigils.

Burial is more expensive than cremation

Figures right? Given that you’re buying a long lease holding over land. And in Sydney, more than one graveyard has water views! And beyond the cost of the land (which can have two or three people in the one plot), then you need a headstone – depending where you are buried will depend on the size of the headstone and other components of the monument.

Cremation is not a quick nor easy process. It takes time to get to the correct temperatures. And it’s not as simple as just burying the body – there’s further tasks to make a fine and consistent sized ash. And, the sanctity of life and identity remains. Everything is individualised, which is to say, done for one. There are countless checks and methods to ensure the identity of the deceased is maintained throughout the process.

Why does it cost so much?

To move a body, takes at least two people – when collecting from a hospital or home. Someone to drive to a location, move the body into a vehicle, and then into a mortuary. There, every body is washed and prepared, including being dressed, before being placed in a coffin. After this, the cheapest method would be to deliver a body straight to a crematorium, with no funeral, and this will need two people. Add in a church or chapel, or any other movement of a body and coffin requires people to carry up steps, and that’s ideally four (and it’s STILL heavy).

There are some relatively fixed costs like official death certificates or cremation fees. There’s lots of ‘if you want’ costs in orders of service, flowers, costs to churches and clergy (or chapels and celebrants). Whether you want a headstone or an urn. Though, you do get a PVC brick sized container with ashes, so one doesn’t HAVE TO have to do anything more.


It’s not very common in Australia. It’s incredibly common in New Zealand. It’s a highly skilled task, and preserves the body. A body must be embalmed to be entombed in a crypt or a vault – essentially any long term storage above ground. This is a specialist skill and requires certification. It is, in fact, the only qualification in the funeral industry.

Any questions you have about funerals?

Working life

After more than six months not working, it’s quite interesting to be back to working. I started on a Wednesday, so it’s the end of the second week.

I wear a uniform. Everyday. I’m not really used to that, yet. (My previous long term employment did come with a uniform, but I wore it on average once a week). Much less, that I have to wear pantyhose. I have options between a dress, a skirt and trousers, but the wool of the trousers mean I always wear something underneath to minimise itchiness. I thankfully got home early enough on Friday to be able to drop the trousers to a tailor to line.

Waverley Cemeterey – nice place to finish a working week

My start times have been a little variable, as I move around different sites to meet people and see how they do things. But I also start some ‘classroom’ style training in the coming week too. I’m appreciative that they don’t last a complete eight hour day!

Unfortunately this second week of work has also coincided with my fifth cold this season. I must be doing something wrong! Most of the week, I just poured whatever energy I had into work, and then retreated to bed for a few hours the minute I got home. I slept a few hours, then was awake for a few hours of prime time TV and some food, and then back for a full night’s sleep. My lethargy was so complete that I didn’t actually get to a chemist until Friday. I can only wonder how helpful some cold and flue medication might have been earlier in the week! It’s been a game changer!

Otherwise, how’s the work? Well, I’m not actively managing just yet, but slowly being introduced to my branch’s business, and also the parents companies brands. There’s lots of similar sorts of thing: managing a fleet of vehicles, working with the crew who will attend funerals. There’ll be a large component of running the office/depot that I’m based at, and the three satellite locations. I imagine property management will be a slow process, given corporate always has an overlay of what is possible and affordable. There’ll be a level of tidying and arranging all the inventory into sensible locations – rather than scattered across the one main location I work at. There’ll also been a bucketload of ‘this happened, now what?’ style questions – problems that arise during day to day work, and them being refereed to me, their manager, when I’m currently ill equipped to even know all the options! Honestly, it’s daunting but also good to think of your feet!

I feel this weird sense that now I should be striving. Reaching. It’s a perverse feeling, but also oh so common. Climb, grow, stretch. However, I’m in the ‘learn’ phase. Look around. Think. Ask questions. And make lists… always lists!

Day 1 in a funeral home

What a day . No photos because… that didn’t seem respectful.

Unsurprisingly I’m exhausted after my first day back working. It didn’t help that I didn’t find it easy to fall or stay asleep last night either. It started with a hiccup – the wrong express train! I was due at Lidcombe at 8:30 to try on and collect the parent brand uniforms. Thankfully, everything I needed was available in my size: skirt, pants, dress, three identical tops, a blazer, a trench coat, a cardigan, a belt, 2 of 5 pairs of stockings and leather gloves and a black hat. All in black. Most of the suiting pieces in wool too! If I’d been a white lady, there was even pearl earrings and necklaces!! (In addition to white and fawn everything).

At 10, I was collected by my equivalent – I’m coming on board to halve her heavy burden and work load. She was taking me to watch a funeral and talk me through what I was seeing. We watched the matriarch and brand ambassador conduct a priest’s funeral – a conductor doesn’t run the service – that’s for a priest or a celebrant. Then there’s a hearse driver, who the conductor travels with. Then there’s any number of mourning cars, whether internal or hired cars with drivers, who collect the family or nearest and dearest.

After the service, there was a light lunch in the parish hall. After that, those closest to the deceased continue onto the cemetery for the burial. First for me – never been to a grave side. The hearse comes up to the grave site which has been pre dug. The conductor asked if the family and friends wanted to carry the coffin this one last time (it is wheeled into and out of the church on little concertina device).

From there, we all returned to our base. A garage that fits a surprising number of vehicles, wow, tricky parking, that’s for sure. Above the garage is where the stock of coffins are, where they are trimmed and prepared. When they are selected for a service, they have the decorative handles and thumb screws added, as well as a cross as appropriate.

On the other side of the laneway from the garage is the larger building with the office – full of arrangers. These are the people who meet the family and prepare all the details. It’s an old building, so it’s a real collection of rooms and corridors and stairs.

I’ve met most of my team – I met two at the funeral, one the hearse driver and the other a mourning car driver. Back at base, I met the person filling in for the mortician who is on holidays currently, plus two other men. They are all older than me – which did not surprise me (but the reverse may not be true!). One or two of the men have been in the industry for 20ish years, but the balance have 1-2 years experience, like my boss.

At around 4pm, after having a lovely afternoon tea brought over by the recruiters who brought me on board, the men went home, I did some final paperwork, and then had what I assume is an early mark. Not a minute too soon! I am feeling it after so many hours on my feet!

Tomorrow is new job day!

Things I’m looking forward to

  • meeting new people
  • learning a whole new industry
  • feel my work is emotionally meaningful

What I’m a little apprehensive about

  • wearing a uniform again! Will it look good? Will it suit me?
  • tiredness – being unemployed has allowed me to slow down when I need to. Eight hour of work doesn’t provide as much flexibility
  • thinking I’ll be emotionally resilient – and finding I’m not!

Going into this, I’m trying to consider some strategies. Here’s what I’ve come up with

  • death is a natural part of life – even if it’s too soon or impossible to consider life without someone
  • pain and suffering ends for the person when they die, and transfers to other people. Keeping that the person is at peace is going to be helpful.
  • it’s an event – a big and important event – like a wedding. People have high expectations. And likely a sense of being ‘ripped off’. Keep those competing ideas in mind.

Let’s see how it goes!

So you wanna see dead people?

No actually.

But what has always fascinated me is knowing how things work. How electricity works. How they get power to cities. And how, the one thing we all have to do, is die. But it is largely a mystery on how the logistics of being buried or cremated happens. it’s during a stressful time of high emotions, and financial decisions and huge shifts in family dynamics.

I first thought about the funeral industry in 2009/2010 when I did a term on funerals in my one day a week floristry course. When we did the funeral unit, we had an excursion to a family owned and run funeral home. The purpose was to learn more about the terminology and how the floral arrangements were constrained by the coffins and the hearses.

No one had many questions, that I recall, on that excursion. I had a ton. (This is likely genetic, both my parents always know where a cab or Uber driver is from and how many kids they have etc etc). I thought it was a great opportunity to lift the curtain in a time when I wasn’t grieving and find out how it all worked.

Then, in 2017, my paternal grandfather and my material grandmother died. They were both the ‘last’ on each side. So I was with my parents and aunts and uncles at both their homes, clearing them out. I was the personal who was in charge of talking to the nursing home staff about when to empty grandma’s room. I had the terse conversations with one funeral company who could not shift out crematorium time an hour or two, and so also engaged with a new funeral company (not surprisingly, the one I did that excursion to in 2010!). I was calm under pressure, I was rational. I didn’t ‘do it all’, but I was a help.

So in 2018, I arranged two informational phone calls with funeral companies. I sent some emails or online inquiries, and two places got back to me. In my work lunch breaks and one weekend, I chatted to different people and worked out more of what the job entailed. And how little it paid :/

I realised: I don’t come to work for the pay. It’s a bonus. As in, it’s not cause i get ‘really huge number’ that I come to work with any more pep in my step. I resent being paid a lot and being bored, or not challenged. I’ve come to be paid exceptionally well and most of it is honestly, a bonus. I have easily met my needs and wants and still I saved money. Perhaps a high salary is great, but it’s not NEEDED. I’m still not sure how this will play out in time. I’ll be sure to blog about it when I know more. In the mean time, I have done 18 months of expense tracking, and wrote a 2019 budget. Neither of these were previous habits, so they’ve set me in good stead.

Death is one thing we all have to go through. But I want to understand how that works. How can it be done well? I don’t fear it, but I do want to understand and be ready for it.

Today, I got a verbal offer!

Career changing

So, definitely since late 2017, and into 2018, I felt a sense of ‘now what?’. I had been in the same role for long enough to have achieved a lot of what I’d hoped to, and to also be a little battle weary from the constant restructures and cost cutting/efficiency measures. I also saw both a mentor and a much loved manager be treated poorly by the company – so overall, I become just a little bit totally over work.

In early 2018, I took a month of leave at half pay. I did a week screen free (being less than 30mins screen per day). I did jigsaw puzzles and listened to podcasts. I met a recruiter or two. When I returned to work, I was in the same job in a different location with a different team. It was management’s attempt to help me through my malaise. But it was the same stuff in a different place. Same larger organisational challenges, slightly different actors and slightly shifted perspectives. I wasn’t growing, and I had a healthy sense of hatred for the constant changes in the company. A recruiter rang and suggested a role that might suit – it sounded horrendously boring, but I figured, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I took that role – a 12 month contract. I tried to see if my original employer would give me a 12 month career break. They would not. I was transparent about why I was asking – I saw it as a strategic advantage – and it would have been. No one was getting career breaks then – save for a senior executive who sailed around Europe and threatened resignation otherwise and that clearly worried them?!

The contract was cut short to nine months. I was told the day before my birthday. The day before the removalists were booked to move me from rent free living with my parents, and back to my apartment. Either of these factors could have been devastating – instead I tried to maintain a professionalism and gravitas when I was told. Inside, I was excited. Thankful. The job had shown me a different bunch of things my knowledge and skills could excel at, but I had also been frustrated by the intensity of editing on everything I produced, the layers of management in every small thing. The lack of direction provided to me, but also to the state from the government. I served out my week and left with a spring in my step.

That was more than six months ago. Initially, I arranged coffee dates with professional contacts. I applied for a job I was semi head hunted for, and then ultimately didn’t perform well enough at interview (and… didn’t mind. I agreed with their feedback, and whilst I could have done a better job, my lack of interest in doing a better job was telling to me) I got sick. I got better. I went to Europe. I came home, and got sick again. I dropped off on professional coffee catch ups – my heart wasn’t in it. The electricity industry is shrinking – the funding is being reduced. Customers are paying more and complaining loudly. Politicians continue to talk about electricity but no one really heed the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s report, the key take away for me was: RETAILERS ARE TAKING A BIGGER CUT THAN EVER. Of course they are – they are the bells and whistles. The marketing juggernauts. The cashed up end of town that lobbies governments, so despite the ACCC’s report, there’s no way governments can claw back to a past where retail pricing was strongly regulated, or where retailers were government owned. That ship has sailed. Capitalism and free market economies haven’t worked for this natural monopoly.

If this all sounds like a rank – I’m not sorry. However, I note that this vitriol is part of why I don’t want to continue in my industry. And ultimately, the bulk of my career skills aren’t ‘electricity’ stuff, but management of projects and staff, budgets, analysing data, drafting ministerial briefs and correspondence to constituents. I just no longer want to be in an environment which is fundamentally falling to bits, and I’m smart enough to know I’m not the mosquito (the one small thing) to change this world. Instead of getting into the arena, I’m finding a new arena.

It’s been hard to work out what next. I went on a date on a Thursday night – a first date, quite unplanned. Dinner at a nearby pub. The date was not a keeper, but his advice was: go where the energy flows. Don’t worry about salary, don’t worry about others think, do what you want. And what I want: the death industry. Well funerals.

So, despite having a truck load of ‘engineering’ adjacent skills, and floristry skills, I took to applying for roles in funeral companies. The date was Thursday. Friday morning I did some quick applications. Friday afternoon a recruiter for one of the jobs called. And that recruiter is still calling…

I feel this is already a long read, so I will perhaps post another day on the ‘why’ of this industry.

Fortune telling

I’ve never had my fortune told, or my card read, or a serious reading of my palm or face or aura.  It’s not surprising given I’m an engineer.  Telling friends from my studies I was planning to get my fortune told did some with some amusing looks!

However, across my two readings, I came to see how much demand and interest there was in these practices!

A dear friend of mine reads this blog, and has used my bucket list/s to inform her gift giving.  For my birthday in 2017, she intended a year worth of activities – one a month, but alas life got in the road.  When she saw my renewed interest in fortune telling, by way of seeking recommendations or referrals, she promptly arranged me two readings, with a third possible opportunity.

My first reading was upstairs at the Argyle Oracle – a terrace lining a street in the Rocks, which has a great market every weekend – one I love to browse for souvenirs to take when I travel.  The ground level is a store of gem stones and books and tarot cards, and then upstairs there’s a number of rooms where readings a done by a range of people!?  I saw Camilla, who lead with asking my name and birthday, which resulted in some calculations about cycles and such – 6 and 9 featured?!  She also asked me to shuffle to decks of cards. She then took her magnifying glass and intently looked at my palms.  Interesting, she spoke of how two of the prominent lines on the hands are more separate in younger generations and she some how linked this to greater technology?! My take aways from her reading of my palm were: long life, good health, minimal dramas (comparing to others, not that my life will be without them!), that I’ll have three children, two boys and a girl (though it did feel like she started at two, and got slightly muddled around gender or birth order or perhaps even quantity).

From my palm, she dealt a smaller than normal playing card deck, in which certain sectors related to certain aspects of life – the top quadrant to my right was related to work.  There was a king there, and across that top row, a number of red cards.  This lay of cards remained dealt on the table, with the expected velvet table cloth, for the balance of the reading, and to the left, she made space where she dealt and re-dealt the tarot cards.

The tarot deck she used seemed to feature swords pretty heavily, and also what looked like sapling logs?  She dealt these cards in different configuration and quantities.  At one deal, she had three cards, followed by two more rows of three cards, and a few more to the side.  Initially she said the top row was 2017, followed by 2018 and 2019.  When I clarified we were now in 2018, she corrected.  And with that, everything shifted a year – womp womp.  It was with this deal that she spoke to marriage and children, who are coincidently gorgeous.  It does make you wonder if anyone would read and say ‘horribly ugly children’, right?  That being said, I suppose there are negatives that may be seen – health issues perhaps?

She spoke quickly with quite a nervous energy.  I was open to what she said, but I also wasn’t giving away great swaths of my life story either.  She lead with asking if I had any kids. I think she also asked about my work.  There were certainly some parts of the reading that sounded like common advice that anyone would give!

Much later, that same day, my friend had arranged another reading – this time with a male, Paris, who also stares on a TV show.  He came to have a natural gift, despite being a sceptic, she told me.  In reality, our reading was far shorter than anticipated (40 mins not an hour), and so I took some time to talk to him about his work, the critics, what happens if he was to reread/redeal the cards again for the same person right there.  I found the debriefing chat as insightful as my fortune telling!

Paris started by dealing a deck of cards and then fanning them out in front of me, asking me to select a quantity, perhaps 17? I can’t recall.  As I did that, he started writing a page.  At the top of the page was a traced palm, and with that, he asked me to select two areas of focus.  I chose work/career and love/romance of the total of six options.  These selections resulted in him annotating the on two fingers with a love heart and elsewhere, two money symbols.  He held my selected cards as a smaller deck until he’d completed writing the page.  He then dealt the cards and proceeded to transpose the equivalent characters of the Greek gods shown onto the fingers of the traced hands on the paper. (deciphering this at the pub after was a fun activity for me with my two friends!).

His dealing of these cards resulted in a strong segment of blue Gods around the centre, definitely Neptune and Uranus.  There were some strong female Gods (godesses?) too, like Dianna, Pan, Venus and Medusa.  His reading seemed to focus on the coming year, and really saw strong components of work and travel, which echoed things Camilla has said.  Overall, he quietly dismissed romance and love, explaining that the personalities of the cards I dealt weren’t aligned with welcoming love at this time.  Whilst I did have Venus, she seemed to be crowded out by some more… domineering godesses!  I’d be the first to acknowledge this would align somewhat to my personality, and particularly lately with dating.  He did consider that I could have a very segregated work and romantic life as a way of making it work, but I can’t see this duplicity working for me.  So it would seem the year ahead is about career, more so than love.

Neither reading seemed to touch on health at all – other than the more platitude like concepts like Camilla suggesting meditating more, and asking if I did yoga.  Paris wrote of balance and setting boundaries, as well as mind and body.  Neither are particularly firm grounds but neither are bad advice – I mean who doesn’t need more balance?

If I was to relocate overseas…

I drafted this post a long time ago, maybe 2015 or 2016, but it was even more interesting to re-read given my flatmate moved internationally to live back in Australia.  And his boxes have arrived! So I can report on his decisions below in italics in 2017!

So, work’s restructuring.  I feel confident.  I have to feel confident, I have to lead 60 people through it.  But I legitimately free OK.

The BF’s work (see how old this is?)is making HUGE changes, which could see opportunities internationally.  We could possibly move internationally.

Even if the above is only a dream… people do move house!

If we move far, we would not pack
– almost anything electrical (TV, VCR/DVD, fridge, washing machine, desktop computer, blender, iron, toaster, kettle, food processer) flatmate seems to have sent a computer screen, cables and cords, a modem (how he thought he could wait months for that!)
– second hand/Ikea furniture (dining chairs and table, occasional chairs, IKEA bed frames, buffet, kitchen trolley, coffee table, outdoor chairs and table) yep, he brought no furniture
– linens (towels, sheets, donna covers, cushions) again, all supplied by me in the initial months
– cheaper ‘art’: second hand canvas photo prints (3)! again, none.
– decorator items like birdcages, Astroturf rabbit, ornamental Easter eggs well… no, but.. there has been about 30 tchokees arrive and be put out on a common area.  They are travel souvenirs..

We would take with us
– clothing of all seasons, location dependent flatmate seemed to have sent many clothing items on the slow boat!
– personal electronics like laptops, tablets and phones; toothbrush and hair dryer obviously!

We would store!?
– sentimental items like photo albums and journals and art
– the couches – I love them. They were bought new. They will not sell well. It took me a long time to find the ‘right’ sofa. My parents stored theirs for three years and only just replaced them (stored from 1995-1998)
– cushion covers if I love them – this one totally surprises me!  What WAS I thinking?
– books – I don’t have many, what I do have, is because I WANT to keep them, but with a clear limit (ie one tea chest sized box)

Things I have NO idea about
– cutlery and crockery – they’d last time, but they are heavy so there’d be little point in taking them he’s not shipped either, but… done well to break some glasses and crockery – special skills, cause I can’t recall the last time I smashed something!
– kitchen gadgetry from pots to pans to utensils – which is similar to the above so, the flatmate has bought some things of his preference (cast iron pans) as little things like silicone rings for eggs and oversized ice cube trays.  His choices usually puzzle me!  He’d packed to ship items like a knife sharpener, and got impatient and re-bought one.
– lamps – I LOVE some of them. But again, HEAVY! And electrical, life can be unkind to them when they are out of use Flatmate loves that we have lamps (well… uses them) but thinks one is a little too bright…  Didn’t see the rush to buy a dimmer globe when it blew, so I’m ignoring his feedback :p

What this made me realise? Buying cheaper furniture that I like, whether Ikea or second hand, makes me less invested in keeping it if life changes. That being said, I’m happy with it. I don’t want to upgrade it.

Looking for a job

Looking for a new position to work in hasn’t been easy. I thought I might process my thoughts in writing.

I do have an engineering degree. I don’t feel that I’ve worked in role which have utilised the technical components of either what I studied OR what is in the industry. After two years in a graduate program, rotating every six months, I went into a permanent role which was project management of small electrical infrastructure projects. All distribution level, which is, suburban street sizes. And all connecting to a mature and established grid, so there was little in respects to technical suitability of the solution etc etc. I recieved a design, and worked to get it installed as designed (well, unless the design totally missed some site based difficulties…!)

From there, I went into more managerial roles. It involved a lot of odds and ends as tasks to start with. Improving performance of a group of field staff, who didn’t do project work, so weren’t in the existing systems of scheduling. Dealt with some consultation with staff on changes to their rostering and work location – which might sound like one 1 hour meeting, until you factor in a heavily unionised work force. I was also asked to look into how to condense two depots into one.

After this role, I went on to manage a small team of office workers in managing maintenance documents – they prepare the instructions for field staff. I really enjoyed this role, as there was a lot to teach the team who were new to the role, but not the business. It was also when I started being involved in an IT transformation where field staff would be issued with iPads, in an effort to streamline work. It was incredible how much I learnt about the existing software, and the limitations and challenges to move it to a mobile device which may not always have internet connections.

I have another three years of work experience to rabbit on about, but the point is… I don’t know how to articulate that this is what I like to do. It’s not an ‘engineer’ but it does require some technical knowledge, and an ability to interface with other tradespeople to understand. Ultimately, it’s a problem solving role. Googling ‘problem solver’ as a job description… not so successful (Lies… the Seek ad show 15,212 problem solver jobs!)

I do not want to work in

  • sales
  • safety/risk management. Sure it can come up, but not the focus.
  • making slideshows. You can’t make me lol!

Any nudges or hints on where you think I should put my feelers, I’m all ears

If not this job, then what?

*Drafted sometime in 2018 but never published*

I have a job now, and I don’t enjoy it.  I find it hard to self motivate.  It’s related to feeling so out of my depth.  There’s so many layers of management that review and authorise everything we draft, so that can cripple my ability to feel it’ll ever pass. I’m also not clear on what our role can influence and change – external parties see us as being able to change laws, but really, it’s pretty unlikely.  Ministers wish we did more for customers, even when it’s a private company that now runs the company, not the govt.

I took this job as I felt I was stagnating in my previous role.  Not being challenged and not really learning.  It feels similar now; there was learning, but I mostly feel blah.

Whilst I was on a month’s break from the long standing job, I ended up brainstorming a business idea with my friends.  I didn’t really do anything more with it, other than meet with one of my priests to talk about their perspective.  It’s related to an industry where I could take an entry level job to test the waters.  When I had an informational interview with one family owned business, I realised just how lowly paid it is.

Prior to this call, I’d spent time analysing my expenses this year.  Looking at what I budgeted vs what I spent.  I don’t usually actively budget, but with the four weeks off work, I took half my usual salary and with some big bills, threw me for six.  When I look at all my spending (and not saving), I worked out the salary I could live on.

The numbers surprised me, they are low.

They just aren’t as low as this information interview number.