Misconceptions & Questions -- A collection of questions and opinions about the funeral industry

   There is now a special page called 'Ask an Undertaker' for people to openly ask any questions which will be answered by various funeral staff or myself.  Feel free to ask anything, this is a rather open minded space!  Simply follow the link below and ask away :)

    Here is a list of misconceptions and questions about the funeral industry.  I will regularly update the list as I write new posts.

Misconceptions & Questions - Part 1

Misconceptions & Questions - Part 2

Misconceptions & Questions - Part 3

Misconceptions & Questions - Part 4

About the funeral home and undertakers

What's it like to be around death all the time?
    An undertaker is not really around "death" anymore than a doctor or nurse.  Undertakers deal with the funeral, not death.  Sure, the funeral involves transporting and preparing bodies, but that is not the main thing or the emphasis.  Undertakers do not see people die, and put more work and time into paperwork and families than bodies.  Think of the undertaker as an events organiser, who specialises in a specific type of event.

Funeral homes are family run:
    While there are several funeral homes that are family businesses they are not all this way.  Think of the funeral home as a business, a company, not as a "home".  It is a service industry, like many places and is run as a business.  A funeral home is a company, it makes a business out of selling funerals.  So no, the vast majority of funeral companies are not family owned or operated.  Big international companies like InvoCare exist.

Those who work in the funeral industry are strange or morbid:
    This is not the case, well it is, but not because it is the funeral industry!  Any large group of people contains 'strange' people, the funeral industry staff are no stranger than people in any other industry.  In fact most in the industry are less morbid than those outside the industry.

Do you need qualifications to became a funeral director or undertaker?
    No, you do not need any qualifications for this job.  To become an undertaker, arranger, funeral director, conductor, hearse driver or anything in the funeral industry (except certain jobs such as an embalmer) then you need nothing other than a drivers license.  I would recommend an understanding of Sydney roads, but other than that training is on the job and no requirements needed.

Do you need to mature or older to be an undertaker?
    Not necessarily.  Many people (such as myself) start out in the industry at a 'young' age.  One conductor I knew started with he was just 15.  However this is a bit of ageisim against younger people in this industry.  Certain companies only employ older people and there is the perception that with youth there is immaturity.  That "younger people are not suited for this job" as someone once said.

What is the role of the undertaker?
    As Thomas Lynch once said "a good funeral is one that gets the dead where they need to go, and the living where they need to be".  Working with bodies was a big part of the job, but most of the job is dealing with the living, driving mourners about was probably 60-70% of my job.  This is what the undertaker does, they work in a service industry and deal with the living.

- The undertaker buries / cremates the body
    No, never.  The undertaker is a very different person to those who burry or cremate the body.  The people who burry the body are called "gravediggers" (or 'diggers' for short) and are more handymen or gardeners.  They also maintain the cemetery.  Those who cremate the body are crematorium staff and are similar to the diggers in that they are more handymen.  The undertaker deals with the families and the bodies, but does not "commit" the bodies.

About the funeral:

Can the family ride in the hearse with the body?
    Maybe, there is nothing against it, but it really depends on the specific funeral home.  Firstly it might not be practical or possible.  Some funeral companies use a single-cab hearse, which only has two seats.  But the duel-cad design is more common now, this hearse has four seats which means there is room for passengers.  However, some funeral homes use these seats for their own staff, saving them a car.  Plus some funeral homes might be reluctant to the idea.  So really, this depends on the funeral home, but it is possible and probably could be done.

Funerals are always sad:
    This is not true, many funerals I was on were fun happy events, more a celebration than a grieving.  Of course this depends heavily on the culture, age and gender of the mourners.  Yet in most cases the funeral is not a depressing event.

Is it emotionally difficult?
    Not really.  One thing people do not think of is that the undertaker does not know the deceased or the mourners.  It is rarely a personal thing for the undertaker.  This is because those outside the industry have never been an undertaker, thus they cannot see a funeral from the undertakers perspective.  There are cases where the funeral is emotionally difficult, if it is personal to the undertaker.  Such as when the deceased is similar to someone they care about.  But this is rare and generally the funeral is not a sad event for the undertaker.  This is also because funerals are not always sad events themselves.

Is there an environmentally friendly funeral option?

    This is something I do not know, nor do I get asked about this very often.  There are various 'green' options out there, but they are difficult to access (especially in Australia), or expensive or not what they are meant to be.  A standard wood coffin is often not that bad either, most coffins are made from recycled chipboard.  And they are not treated with too many chemicals.  So the difference between a cardboard coffin (such as LiveArt) and a standard wood coffin is debatable at best.  Thus I do not know if there is a viable environmental option readily available in Australia.

Can a hearse be sent to a transfer (such as a crime scene or hospital?
    Yes, a hearse can be used to pick up a body at any location anytime.  Normally a transfer vehicle is used (such as a white Toyota van) but if there is no transfer car available or there is another reason then the hearse can be used.  While rare for most companies some, such as the Islamic and Jewish funeral homes do this regularly.  I remember an instance where a Jewish funeral home used a hearse for a transfer at Westmead Children's Hospital.  they parked the hearse at the main entrance and went about their business as though it was a regular transfer car.  So it is rare, but happens.

About Cremation:

Can you cremate a body that has been in a mortuary fridge for a long time?
    Yes, everybody can be cremated.  Bodies that have been in the fridge for a long time will mummify. If anything they might even cremate better as they are dry and have less tissue to 'burn off' in the cremator.  Crematoriums can also cremate exhumed remains.

Can I go into the crematorium to see the coffin committed?
   Yes, most crematoriums offer this, but at a cost and only for specific funerals.  One cannot just go in to have a look around, you need a good reason.  The most common reason is to watch a body be cremated.  Many crematoriums provide a special built room so you can actually watch this happen.  They all charge money to watch this, usually about $200 or more, and they need at least 24 hours notice before the funeral service.

- How long does it take a body to burn?
Most people take an average of three hours but it can vary wildly depending on the crematorium. Macquarie park Crematoriums takes about 3 hours, but the Catholic Crematorium at Rookwood takes about 45 minutes.  Size of the body is also a factor, I have heard of how it took about 36 hours to cremate a woman who was just over 300kg.  She only just fit into the crematory.

- What is ash like after someone is cremated?
  Human ash is not like 'ash' as many expect. It is not a fine powder but rather a sandy mixture. It is grainy and rough. This is because bone does not completely burn down. So the lumps of bones left in the retort (cremator) are ground down in a special machine.

About the body and mortuary:

Is it harder to deal with an obese body?
    Yes, obese bodies are always more difficult in every way.  They require more work and are sometimes dangerous to transfer (pickup or collect).  They are more effort and sometimes need more people to dress, prepare and coffin.  Then to carry at the cemetery they need more people and are more difficult, as it when lowering it.  Or at the crematorium they take longer to burn.  Recently in Austria a crematorium burnt down when an obese body blocked the vents.

Why does the decomp smell cling to things?
    All smells cling to things in one way or another.  Just the decomp smell is more noticeable and we 'look' for it.  The sense of smell is tied with an emotional area of the brain (like sound), so smells can evoke emotions in us.  We are also good at finding things we do not like, people who have a dislike of a certain smell will find it before anyone else does.  So the smell of a decomp body is bound up in emotion and dislike, making it noticeable.  My trick with the decomp smell is to just take a deep breath, as unpleasant as it is.  We adapt very quickly, and after one or two deep breaths the smell is very weak or gone.

Do black people turn green when they die?
    This was an odd question I saw on a forum a while ago.  But yes, everyone will turn green in time.  The green colour starts in the stomach area, then moves its way up through the body.  The process is the same regardless of race or skin colour.  What can influence this is condition, as in if the person had an illness before they died.  Certain things speed up the decomp process.

Everybody is embalmed:
    Embalming is rare ins Australia, unlike America or New Zealand where most bodies are embalmed.  While there is a shortage of embalmers we generally do not embalm many bodies.  Generally the only time we embalm bodies is when they are going into a vault/crypt or going overseas.  This does depend on culture and personal attitudes, some chose to embalm the body.

- How long does it take to embalm a body?
There are several types of ‘embalming’ from the temporary ones to transfer them interstate or internationally to the full embalm to preserve the body for a long time.  It will usually take about three hours to fully embalm a person.

Does the body smell?
    To answer this ask does the food you cook smell?  Not always, it depends on the specific instance.  obviously decomposed bodies smell, and sometimes when bodies are moved they release smells.  But this is not always the case.

Is the body cold?
    The body is room temperature, so if the room is cold or hot then so is the body.  Most bodies are kept in a fridge, either in the funeral home or in the hospital.  And many nursing homes us a 'holding room' which is a small windowless room at the back to keep the body.  These places are all cold, the holding room might not be as cold as a fridge but it is not as warm as a regular room.  So the bodies generally feel a little cold to the touch.

All bodies have rigor-mortis:
    Not all bodies suffer from rigor-mortis, it is only in specific cases.  And even when bodies do have rigor-mortis it is easily "broken" by bending and moving the joints about.

Is the mortuary messy?
    Working with bodies is not always messy.  It can be, depending on the body, but generally one has gloves and an apron on in the mortuary.  Even if the body is messy the staff rarely get dirty or messy.  The transfer is another matter as the transfer staff only have gloves, nothing else.

- Do you break peoples legs to fit them into the coffin? 
No, never. This is simply ridiculous and so funny to me. It would take a LOT of work and effort to break or remove someones legs. It is not worth it, the undertaker would just get a bigger coffin. Or they can bend the legs, legs do bend quite easily. Think of when you sit and when you stand, your legs bend, and without any breaking!

- What is rigor mortise and can you get rid of it?
Rigor mortise is basically a stiffening of the limbs.  The joints become difficult to bend, this does not happen with all bodies, in fact it does not even happen in most. The way it is gotten rid of is through a process called "breaking the rigor mortise". Basically you bend the limbs back and forward a few times and the joints will losen up. This 'breaks' the stiffness and the body is back to normal.

- Does it smell in the mortuary and / or do you smell after working in there?
Sometimes, it depends. As with cooking, it sometimes smells, other times it does not, it depends on what you are doing. Some bodies smell, either they have "leaked" out an end or they have decomposed or they just smell. Other times it is due to the chemicals used by the embalmer. It is also the chemical smell which can cling to clothing, not the smell of the body.  

- How do you keep bodies?
All mortuary fridges are kept between 3 and 5 degrees celsius.  Any colder and they begin to freeze which damages the body and makes it hard to work with.  Any warmer and there will be obvious side effects (like rotting).  I, and others, have noticed that certain fungi will grow on bodies kept in the fridge for long periods.  It is either orange or white and not found anywhere else.  Not even on similar bodies if they are out of the fridge for a long time, nor on the fridge itself.  This fungi is just something that can only grow on a body when it is kept in a fridge.

- Do you 'reconstruct' the body?
Rarely will we do much more than put on clothes and suture the mouth shut or brush their hair. Funeral homes in Australia avoid delving into makeup and other methods to make the body look life like. This is because it is just so difficult to get right. The person may have worn a lot of makeup, or very little, we do not know. And going by a photo is difficult because colours are not always accurate. Hair styling is something they also shy away from. Getting it 'just right' or at least 'good enough' for families is so difficult. Undertakers are not hairdressers, they are not makeup artists, they are just workers ferrying the dead about. I have never seen a funeral home employ a hairdresser or makeup specialist, nor have I even hear of it. 


How deep is a grave?
    This depends on two things, the land and what was paid for.  Simply there are three different depths a grave can be dug, the deeper it goes the more it costs.  Either way a grave is rarely around 6 feet deep.

I explain in more detail here.

Is it illegal to cut off a funeral procession?

    Yes, it is quite serious and illegal to cut off a funeral procession.  This is something I want to write a whole post on properly later.  But basically in NSW Australia the fine is quite high, a few hundred dollars and they take points off your license (if I remember right).  The current police commissioner of   NSW is very into respect for the funeral.  The funeral procession generally has right of way except at traffic lights.  However, this law is note really enforced as it would need a cop to be there at the time and would be hard to prove happened.  So while illegal it happens all the time, most people do not mean to cut off a funeral procession, they are simply passing slow cars.

Can I buy and drive a hearse?
    Yes, there is no special license or requirement to own or operate a hearse.  Although I would not recommend it.  Hearses use custom large glass panels, which are incredibly expensive to replace or repair.  They are also long and impractical to drive or park and heavy so they eat fuel.  Another issue is that hearses are custom made, and not every company pays money for quality.  One hearse was famous in InvoCare for bending and twisting when going over a bump or dip.  Furthermore hearses are not often well looked after, they are usually run constantly and heavily before being sold.  They are also expensive to buy second hand as they are very expensive to make.  So yes, you can own and run a hearse, but it is rarely worth it.

The funeral industry is morbid or 'dark': 
    No, undertakers either laugh or sigh when people say this.  Sometimes people join the industry because they think it is morbid, dark, cool or whatever.  Then they shortly leave as they realise how mundane it really is.  Being an undertaker is no more morbid or dark than working in retail or an office.  And most undertakers are not morbid people, rather the opposite if anything.

Do undertakers break or remove the legs on a long body to fit it into a coffin?
    No, never!  This is a rare question, but always makes me laugh.  Just the impracticality of it is amusing, how difficult it would be to remove a leg.  Especially when legs can be bent at the knee quite naturally, or one can get a bigger coffin.  To go to all the trouble of removing a leg is amusingly absurd.

Is it a smelly job and/or industry?
    Yes and no, it depends heavily.  Most times there is not much smell, but if there is it is rarely strong or that unpleasant.  However there are times when it is a smelly job, and one remembers those times well.  A badly decomposed body often has a strong smell about it, a smell which will penetrate into your lungs and nose no matter what you do.

What can you do to help deal with a smelly body?
    By far the best thing to do is to take one or two deep and full breaths.  Inhale the smell as unpleasant as it is.  It is interesting how quickly you will adapt, how just in one or two strong breaths the smell will either vanish or become tolerable.  Doing things like not breathing much, wearing masks, using vaseline under the nose and so on will only make the unpleasantness of the smell last longer.

- What is a transfer vehicle?
    The transfer vehicle is the car used to 'transfer' (pickup and transport) a body.  This involves collecting the body from the hospital, from a nursing home, from the scene of an accident, from a personal residence/house, taking the body interstate and so on.  The transfer vehicle is basically white van, often a Toyota Hicace.

Pictures of inside a transfer van

Explanation of the transfer

- Has anyone ever been buried / cremated alive or woken up in a mortuary?
I do not know for sure, but I doubt it. The body is kept in a fridge which is between 3-5C. Too cold for anyone to survive long, especially on a metal or plastic tray and without clothes. So even if someone did go into a mortuary alive (which I doubt would happen) they would never wake up.

- Do the gravediggers / crematorium staff steal belongings? 
No, they do not have the equipment desired to hopen or handle an open coffin. They do not have gloves or training to do it. Many diggers or crem staff have never seen a dead body. But even if they did have the tools they never have the time. Both diggers and crem staff work constantly , they would not have time to go breaking into random coffins on the off chance of finding something valuable.

- Have you seen 'Six Feet Under'?
This is perhaps the most known TV show about a funeral home. And it is a great show, well written, interesting rounded characters, etc. But it is not accurate of an Australian funeral home. For one we do not embalm many bodies (although it is becoming more common), we very rarely put makeup or anything similar on a body (even if it is for viewing) and we always wear gloves when handeling the deceased or even in the mortuary. On the show they have a lot more focus on 'fixing' the appearance of the deceased. Using special tools and chemicals to make them look like they are sleeping. In Australia we tend to just suture the mouth shut, put some eye-caps under the eyelids and nothing much else. ALso on that show they never wear gloves much. Here we must always put on gloves before we even enter the mortuary.