One of the questions I get asked the most is “how did a young woman like you wind up working in a funeral home?”. I’m not exactly the image that springs into mind when you think ‘funeral director’. I am not old, hunched, male or grumpy. In fact I am the complete opposite of all of those things. My story is quite a journey. It was at times challenging and I often had to defend my position as a young person in the workplace. But my story has a happy ending, because it all led to here, my place at Tender Funerals.
It all started when as a young fresh faced 16 year old I sat in one of my year 11 high school elective classes, Food Technology. Whilst studying the effects of food consumption on the human body we watched a Gunter Von Hagens documentary in which he dissected human cadavers as an educational tool. I was completely intrigued, both by the body and also by the mortuary technicians in the documentary who were so comfortable, at ease and normalising interaction with the dead human body (albeit extreme). I walked away from that class a changed woman. It was the first form of media where I had seen a body portrayed as an ordinary – not to be a feared thing and it ignited something inside me. I wanted to be one of the mortuary technicians in the video.
I set my sights to perusing a career in the field and asked my careers advisor what qualifications I needed to become a mortician. Once her shock settled she committed to research how to help me achieve my dream career. Together and independently we researched about funeral homes, qualifications, embalming, basic mortuary care and wages. For 6 months we researched and made phone calls trying to get me work experience in a funeral home. I had never seen a body before and while I really wanted to do the work I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t biting off more than I could chew.
First I met with a qualified embalmer who answered my questions about what the role of a mortician/embalmer actually entails and I left even more inspired than when I started. Then our search continued to find an opportunity to do work experience to see if the work was for me. After many knock backs my careers adviser was successful in securing me with a week of work experience. This was a career defining moment for me, because it was the start of something huge.
On my first day my mum and I did a tour of the funeral home, then she left me in the safe hands of the manager…someone who turned out to be my first significant mentor in the funeral world. I was fortunate enough to tag along and participate in almost every element of working in a funeral home. I was registering deaths with Births, Deaths and Marriages, riding in the hearse to deliver the deceased to the crematorium, sitting in on funeral arrangements and attending funerals. I was hooked, and the manager could see it. My work experience ended but my time with that company had not. At 16 years of age, I was offered a job during my school holidays as a funeral administrator. During my studies for year 11 and 12 I worked doing more death registrations, booking funerals with crematoriums, ordering coffin nameplate inscriptions and printing form after form.
During this period of saw my first body, a moment I had built myself up to for what had seemed a very long time. When I approached his coffin I was bracing myself “This is it Amy, if you can’t handle this your career isn’t going to work, this moment defines it all, only a few seconds away now”. The anticipation was so built up and as I peered over the side of the coffin…shock. Shock at how ordinary it was, he looked peaceful, like an old man sleeping in grace, ease, comfort and peace. I had created such an expectation that it might be horrific that I hadn’t even considered that fact that it might be a non-event, like being in a room full of the living. I felt I had passed my final test, I now knew I could be with the dead.
Over time I graduated High School and went full time at the funeral home. My colleagues skilled me up and taught me how to arrange funerals, be with the grieving and be of service. By the time I was 19 I had been arranging funerals for years but still had my sights on learning the mortuary skills to physically look after the deceased.
As is common in the funeral industry our small funeral home got sold, and so ended my time with the company that founded my career. I will be forever grateful to all of the people who mentored me in those formative years of my career. Along came the second chapter of my story, a company who skilled me up in the more hands on parts of funeral directing.
My role had changed from ‘front of shop’ to ‘back of shop’ doing the more behind the scenes work that make a funeral happen. I was now transferring the deceased from hospitals, nursing homes, coroners and homes back to the funeral home. I was putting handles and liners on coffins, engraving coffin name plates and the dreaded car washing every morning. I was staffing viewings and funerals but most excitingly, I was learning to become a mortician. Of all of the roles this is the one I was most passionate about, and also most skilled in. After a few years in this position it was clear that the mortuary was my happy place and my employer supported my entry into the course to become a qualified embalmer. I learnt a huge amount and took my mortuary skill and knowledge to the next level, now having an understanding of restorative and reconstructive art and embalming.
It was during this employment that I also started experiencing alternative funerals and the death literacy space. I started seeing people wanting more involvement and personalisation in funeral practices and experiencing cultures that had a hands on approach to caring for their loved ones body. This quickly became another passion of mine and I became the go to person in the funeral home for families who didn’t want the ‘traditional’ funeral.
Although I enjoyed my time learning and doing these wonderful things I felt somewhat limited by the constraints of working in a traditional funeral home. I wanted more freedom for families to be creative and have more access to their deceased. Along came Tender Funerals.
My presence in the death literacy community lead to a number of people telling me about a community in Port Kembla trying to open a not for profit funeral home that I should check out. I watched the ‘Tender’ documentary (click here to see it) and knew I had to be a part of their project. After many conversations back forth, and now with 8 years of experience behind me I became the funeral director of Tender Funerals. It was like my career had been building up to this moment for me to take the reins of Tender and help steer this community to empowered, inclusive, affordable funerals.