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What It's Actually Like To Work In A Funeral Home

From a woman who works in one.
Jo Place was an embalmer by the age of 21.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Jo Place was an embalmer by the age of 21.

When Jo Place finished school at 17, she didn't know what she wanted to do.

"But my parents said I needed to get a job, so I applied for administration jobs in my area," she told HuffPost Australia.

One of those jobs happened to be for a funeral home, and on the advice from her mother that she needed interview experience, Place applied for the role.

What she didn't expect was this whim of an application to turn into a lifelong career, which has seen her trained in embalming, work as a funeral director and end up as the GM at InvoCare, Australia's largest network of funeral homes, cemeteries and crematoria.

"Neither my mother or me were expecting I would get the job, but I did," she said. "So I started in this country funeral home in the office area in the older days when you did the accounts payable and customer service with payments, back when people used to pay in cash."

Place found she had a knack for what she calls the "genuine care" needed when dealing with people in grief, so she asked her manager if he would train her to be a funeral director.

"He agreed, but also said 'to do that, you have to study something'," Place recalled.

"At the time in funerals, there was only funeral home management, grief management or embalming to choose from. He was an embalmer and very passionate about how people's loved ones were treated and presented and cared for, and I think I felt I was quite young to be thinking about funeral home management and also to grasp the full concept of grief management, so I asked him to train me to be an embalmer. He agreed, and I was an embalmer by 21."

Joanne Place has planned over 10,000 funerals.
Joanne Place has planned over 10,000 funerals.

While proud of her achievements, Place also acknowledges embalming was a strange choice for a teenage girl growing up in country Queensland.

In terms of what she would tell people she just met (or prospective love interests), Place said she would sometimes bend the truth. Or, outright lie.

"I would say I worked at a bank and then people don't want to find out anymore about my job anyway," she said.

"Or, depending on the situation, I would tell them I actually work at a funeral home, and this is what I do. I found people either reacted two ways. The first would be to use their own humour to try and get over that nervousness, so they'd come up with the usual jokes.

"But usually straight after that the conversation would shift to 'actually my grandfather, we had his funeral last year and this happened and that happened, is that right?' People were really interested."

In American movies you see a lot of make up, but that's not the case.

And from that interest flowed a whole host of questions, including about what actually went on day to day and what was involved in the embalming process.

"So these days, embalming is carried out by injecting an arterial fluid into the arterial system of the body. Then we use a device in place of the person's heart to pump that fluid through the person," Place said.

"Then that established the required saturation through the person to preserve the person, but it's also used for preservation as well.

"For presentation, the embalming fluids are used for, say, if someone passes away from a heart attack and they have been on their side and one side of their face is blotchy and red... The fluid actually disperses the redness and brings back a natural colour without the use of cosmetics.

"In American movies you see a lot of make up, but that's not the case. The fluid actually takes out the discolouration so the viewing for the family is far better."

Place says 'genuine care' helped her deal with families in grief.
PeopleImages via Getty Images
Place says 'genuine care' helped her deal with families in grief.

But what about traumatic deaths such as car crashes and the like? What then?

"If somebody tragically dies in a car accident, and we need to do reconstruction, we have specialised cosmetics for those circumstances," Place said. "Relatives want to see them as they knew them, and every one of our mortuaries have at least one qualified embalmer with the training to do that."

Over her 25 year career, Place estimates she has helped plan over 10,000 funerals, but admits some stayed with her more than others.

"All funeral directors have their experiences that they carry with them," she said. "One that springs to mind is the funeral service for a gentlemen who used to deliver the milk on the milk run in Eastwood on a horse and cart.

"What we did for his funeral service, we actually did a four horse-drawn hearse with a police escort to be able to bring him to the crematorium. That was so nice for the family to be able to do that and to be able to achieve that.

This business is a vocation. We do live and breathe it... It becomes your life.

"The other aspect is organising small children's funerals and understanding what comes with that. You really do hand yourself over the family for that period of time. There's been more than one case where a mother has rung me in the night, and it sounds bizarre, but I guess putting the empathy hat on, if you are in that situation, I've had at least two or three mothers call me to say 'did you say goodnight to my daughter or son? Did you tell their mummy loves them?' And of course in that situation, you do."

It sounds heart-breaking, but Place insists it's not that part of the job that will have her reaching for a gin and tonic at the end of the working day.

"There are some days like that, but it's probably actually not around actually dealing with death or dealing with bereavement," she said.

"It's actually like any other manager of a company when you are trying to build a culture in your business. You have people issues like you do in every other company. I have 500 employees and it's about making sure we are all aligned and moving in the right direction, like any other business.

"I guess my thoughts on being a funeral director [and the funeral business] in general is that this business is a vocation. We do live and breathe it. It's not something you can just decide, 'oh okay I'm going to be a funeral director' and be able to do it halfheartedly. It becomes your life."

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