Why I became a funeral director
Our funeral directors explain why they wanted to work in the funeral industry and how they became a funeral director.
“A privileged position”
Duncan Mason, funeral director and area manager based at T J Davies & Sons
At the age of 17, living in an area of high-unemployment, Duncan Mason signed up for a government initiative - the Youth Training Scheme - which was designed to give 16 and 17-year-olds on-the-job-training which would equip them for a future career. It was during his first day in the job that Duncan developed a passion for the role which he never knew existed.
“On my first day, I attended my first funeral. I didn’t have much idea of what to expect, but I was absolutely blown away by how much people relied on the funeral director. From where to sit, how to stand, when to place the flower on the grave - everything. I realised then what an amazing privilege it is to be able to help people at such a difficult and important time in their lives. I knew then that this was what I wanted to do.”
During his first weeks in the role, Duncan’s main duties were sweeping the yard and cleaning the cars. He shadowed the funeral director - who he now describes as “a superb, old fashioned funeral director” - attending arrangement meetings, meeting families and attending funerals. Despite traditionally being a family business, passed down from generation to generation, Duncan’s passion for the role and determination to do a great job shone through. Duncan went on to become a funeral director at Robert Howells & Sons before taking on the role of area manager.
“A funeral only happens once” Duncan explains, “It needs to run like clockwork. It is an honour and privilege to be able to help people through such a difficult time - and to be able to give a family a positive and memorable final farewell.”
“This was always what I was meant to do”
Rachael Barber, funeral director and regional manager based at Gordon Barber Funeral Homes
For Rachael, the funeral business was very much a part of her family heritage. As a young child, her grandfather’s bedroom window overlooked a local funeral director’s business, sparking an interest in the industry that stayed with him throughout his career as a builder.
It was in 1970 that his dream of working in the funeral industry became reality and, while still working as a builder, Gordon Barber planned and conducted his first funeral service. Although it was to be his first and only funeral that year, the business eventually took off and grew sufficiently that he and his wife Elsie gave up their family home to purchase the local greengrocers, which they then converted into a funeral home.
Rachael grew up watching her grandfather and father build the business. Her father went on to become a President of the National Association of Funeral Directors and subsequently COO of a large funeral business.
Rachael explains, “I always maintained that I didn’t want to follow in their footsteps. I wanted to go off and make my own way in the world.” It was only after going through a redundancy situation that a friend in the business asked Rachael to help out while she looked for work.
“It was supposed to be a stopgap, but once I had started, the realisation hit me that this was always what I was meant to do. I had a real passion for it which I just hadn’t realised was there. There are so many different aspects to the job - right from event planning and organising, bringing people into our care, working with families, through to actually conducting the funerals - but the most important bit of it all is to build a rapport with the family and take the pressure off their shoulders. There are not many other jobs in the world where you can get the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve been able to help someone at one of the worst points in their life.”
“The ultimate caring profession”
Annette MacDonald, business manager for Aberdeen & North Scotland
“I always wanted to work in the caring professions. I thought about becoming a nurse, or perhaps a carer in a hospice, but I always thought that if someone passed away in my care, I would feel like I failed. It was then that I decided that I wanted to care for people after they’d passed - and to look after their families at a time of need.”
After working for many years in the print industry, Annette had often been involved in printing order of service documents for her local funeral home. When the business closed down, she decided to pursue a career as a funeral director. At the time, the funeral directors that Annette contacted were very traditional in their approach, holding the view that it was a job for men and a profession that should be kept within families with years in the trade.
A few years later, after changing her married name and moving house, Annette received a call. “I was actually headhunted by one of the funeral directors that I’d interviewed with a few years before. Times had changed, they wanted female funeral directors to join the firm and I suppose my passion must have come across when we had first met. Despite it being completely against the odds - different name, different address - they had found me. I was absolutely delighted.”
Starting as a funeral service operative and now overseeing numerous funeral homes in her area, Annette is still as passionate about the role as she ever was.
“I’ve got a real passion for looking after people. Being a funeral director probably doesn’t occur to most people as being a caring profession. But it absolutely is. I want people to have the most comfortable service possible, to take away their burden and relieve their pain by providing a service that exceeds their expectations.”
“I wanted to be a funeral director when I was five”
Emma Sparre-Slater, funeral director at Francis Chappell & Sons and training manager South London
Ask an average five-year-old girl what they want to be when they grow and you’ll get a fairly average response. For Emma Sparre-Slater, however, the answer was a more unusual one. Growing up in a small community where her father was the local vicar, Emma became aware of funerals at a young age. By the age of five, her career aspirations were fixed.
“I always knew it was what I wanted to do”, explains Emma “but people kept telling me I couldn’t. It was a family profession in those days. People whose families weren’t in the funeral trade found it hard to get into the industry. It was also very rare for women to be funeral directors. It was a very male, very traditional job. I went to art college (with my pet rat on my shoulder!) and eventually ended up working in the BBC costume department. Despite loving the job and having some amazing times, it wasn’t really what I wanted to do.”
Years later, Emma’s Dad rang to say he’d heard she was still hankering after working in the industry, so had arranged for her to have work experience at a local funeral director.
“I’d finally managed to get into an industry that I’d always dreamt about working in. It wasn’t easy. There still weren’t many women in the profession. I worked with an extremely old-school funeral director who was absolutely amazing to learn from but firmly rooted in the tradition of the profession. He believed there was no role for female funeral directors. I had to prove myself.”
It was only after a few years of working back-of-house, in administration and arranging roles - not to mention attending evening classes to get a diploma - that Emma was finally allowed to take on the role of a funeral director. Even then, there were limitations, as Emma explains.
“The funeral home was next door to a children’s hospital. Sadly, we dealt with a lot of funerals of young children and babies. The funeral director had always maintained that it wasn’t a role for women until, one day, he asked me to take over as funeral director on all of the funerals that we did for young children. Somehow, in his eyes, it made sense to have a female funeral director dealing with children. It was incredibly tough, but it cemented my desire to provide the best possible service and support that I possibly could.”
Emma loves the role as much as she could have ever imagined, going on to manage her own funeral homes and progressing to training manager for the region. “I’m extremely passionate about my job. In fact, it isn’t a job. It is a vocation. As a funeral director, you’re a pillar of the community - being good at the role is all about building relationships with the local community and being able to support families by offering the most professional, personal, composed job that we can.”
“After 35 years, my motivation is caring for people”
Mark Carpenter, funeral director at Michael Smy Ipswich and area manager - Anglia
At the age of 11, when asked to write an essay about what he wanted to be when he grew up, Mark wrote about his dream of becoming an undertaker.
“The careers advisors at school didn’t really know what to do with me, but I’d seen something on the TV about an apprentice in a funeral home which really got to me - plus I was keen to find a job that robots couldn’t take over when the millennium hit” Mark laughs.
Mark’s determination saw him start as an apprentice at the age of 15. Initially employed to wash cars, keep the building and grounds presentable, looking after flowers and learn the art of making coffins, Mark progressed to driving the ambulance, hearse and limousines and eventually, at the age of 21, got involved with working with families to arrange funerals, which he felt was a privilege and honour to be able to do.
“For me, being a funeral director is all about helping someone when they are at their lowest ebb. After 35 years in the business, my motivation is still the caring side of the job. I’ve got more life experience now and I’ve lost people myself, which I think makes you even more mindful of ensuring we provide the best possible service and personally do the best job you possibly can.”
“I have a passion for maintaining the high standards set by my parents”
John Paul Kane, funeral manager for Greater Glasgow
John Paul Kane grew up in a family of funeral directors. At the age of 8, his Mum and Dad bought the local estate agency and set about turning it into a funeral home. With both parents involved in the business, John Paul grew up with a firm understanding of what was required - 24/7 availability, calls in the night from recently bereaved families and a need to offer a caring and compassionate service that exceeded expectations.
“At first, I suppose I just wanted to be like my Dad”, says John Paul. “I always knew what was involved in the job and I always wanted to do it - the careers advisors at school didn't know what to do with me! They thought it was a very odd career choice for a young lad.”
At the age of 20, after he’d worked in the business for a couple of years, John Paul’s mum and best friend died within a short time of one another. It was then that he realised how much the job meant to him and the families he works with.
“My parents built the business up and there’s a certain pride and passion associated with making sure I maintain the high standards that they set. What really keeps me focussed is the fact that I am dealing with people who are so very fragile. With a funeral, you have one chance to get it right. You can’t go back and fix. It has to be 100% right, first time, every time.”