‘My role is a very varied and I find it quite fulfilling, because it's helping people at a time when they are under stress… You’re dealing with people at a very vulnerable stage of their life, so you’ve got to be aware of their needs. As an empathetic person, I can find it emotionally draining because if I see people crying, I want to join them.’
Job: Funeral Operative.
Typical hours worked: 20 – 25 (flexible, zero hours contract).
Profile: Dean is in his 60s and lives with his wife in a rural county.
I took early retirement from my job as the CEO of a charity. My wife and I moved area and I wanted to find myself a little part-time job. I looked around, saw the funeral job, applied, and was accepted. That was just after Easter 2020. I enjoy the job because I get a sense of satisfaction out of it.
My working day
My job is very varied and involves collecting the deceased from where they die, whether a hospital, their home or a care home. We also work on behalf of the Coroner by collecting people who’ve been involved in accidents, or died unexpectedly. We see all sorts of accommodation and also deal with bodies in a state of decomposition, so you need a strong stomach.
We take the deceased into our care and look after them until they either move to another funeral home, or are transferred for a post mortem or the day of their funeral.
For the funeral, we place the deceased in their coffin and transfer the coffin to the hearse. We then take the coffin to church, or to the crematorium, sometimes via a person’s home. We also have limousines for mourners. Driving and looking after the vehicles such as washing and cleaning them ready for funerals is very important as they are what the people see. The vehicles and our uniforms are in effect our shop window.
My working hours vary. If I’m supporting a funeral, I might take the orders of service and a picture of the deceased to the church or crematorium ready for when the hearse and the family arrive. If the service is in church, we would then take the coffin to either a crematorium for cremation or to a grave for burial after the service.
We spend quite a lot of time driving and travelling between various places. We also transfer deceased to different funeral homes where they will be cared for.
I’m usually on call on a rotating basis. Sometimes you get no call out, but other times you can be called out three or four times. We wouldn’t normally work the next day after a call out.
My role is a very varied and I find it quite fulfilling, because it's helping people at a time when they are under stress. You’ve got to be very careful and treat the deceased with respect. I was covering for an office colleague once when a family member came in to view her mother. I could tell things weren’t right, she was upset. She told me her mother always used to have a fringe and her mum’s hair hadn’t been set right. So, although I am not a Hairdresser, I combed her mother’s hair for her to get it like she remembered. She came out and said, ‘She’s beautiful, exactly how mum was’. That’s what you do to support people at their time of stress.
It’s a very interesting and varied job, but not one everyone can do. It’s definitely misunderstood – from an outsider's point of view, you see a person in uniform, pulling up in a nice car carrying the coffin into the church, and think, ‘Oh I could do that’.
One of the key questions people get asked at interview is: ’Are you okay dealing with the deceased?’ Of course, people say yes, but some don’t return after lunch on their induction day. They realise that they can’t deal with a deceased body and the job is not for them.
I’m on a flexible contract and work part-time. This means I can just say I’m not available for work on any days I wish. During the summer I tend to do less because we do have a garden that needs sorting out and I think my wife would like to see me occasionally to take her out for the day!
Pay and benefits
We get paid just above the minimum wage. I don’t think this is reflective of the work we are expected to deal with. The company are introducing a two-tier level to reflect that some people only do the driving side of the work, whereas others have to do removals and more challenging things. I still think it ought to be higher. If you get called out, you do get a call fee, and you get an on-call standby fee as well. We do get a discretionary bonus depending on the overall performance of the company. This is usually a percentage of the weekly wage and is paid on to our loyalty card.
Health and wellbeing
There are physical risks to the job. You have to move the deceased when caring and preparing them and then place them in the coffin. If you’re transporting an obese person in a heavy wooden coffin, even six of you may struggle to carry them. So, we’ll instead move them on wheels. If someone’s being buried, they’ll have to be lifted off the wheels and be lowered carefully in to the grave.
It can also be stressful when you’re driving. You’ve got to be at a family’s house or church or crematorium for a certain time, and you can’t drive too fast especially if the family are following. That sort of thing can be a bit stress-inducing, but I try to enjoy what I can and make the most of each day.
Relationships at work
The team I work with on a day-to-day basis are excellent. We all try to support one another as much as possible. My manager tries to do his best for us but there are limits.
Voice and representation
I accept that I’m at the very bottom of the ladder here. We’ve a scheme for making suggestions in the company, but I’ve had some issues. I’ve tried to get support from within, but even a personal letter to each of the directors did not get a single response which I found very disheartening.
I applied for the job because it was a zero-hour flexible approach. That sounded good to me. I was invited to join the pension scheme and being a believer in saving joined. However, the way contributions are made was not properly explained.
You need compassion, understanding, empathy and an eye for detail in this job. If you send grandad’s Half Hunter (pocket watch) to the crematorium or bury grandma’s engagement ring, you’re in real trouble. You’ve also got to be prepared for the occasional unexpected event and be able to deal with it. You have to be unfazed by death and I think in our culture, we don't talk enough about death. People say: ‘Oh, have you made a will?’, but that's as much about death as they think about.
You’re dealing with people at a very vulnerable stage of their life, so you’ve got to be aware of their needs. As an empathetic person, I can find it emotionally draining because if I see someone crying, I want to join them. You obviously can’t do that. You almost have to be an actor on stage and take a step away from your emotions. So, you put your own feelings to one side, get on and give what you hope is your best for the family.
Thinking points for people managers
- Carry out an assessment of contractual arrangements to ensure these are working effectively for both the organisation and the individuals, and that the working-time regulations are being complied with. Consider whether zero-hours contracts are appropriate or whether other arrangements would provide employees with greater consistency and work-life balance.
- Undertake a review of pay and benefits to ensure employees feel they are appropriately remunerated, and enable greater levels of staff retention.
- During the recruitment process, ensure potential employees get the opportunity to experience the workplace and talk to current employees to gain a full understanding of what the job involves.
- Look for opportunities to build employee relationships and teamwork on both a professional and social basis, including more visibility of senior managers.
- Ensure the current process for employee suggestions is communicated and that there is a clear mechanism for people to give feedback – look at ways to improve this process.
We’re calling on the UK Government to create a long-term workforce strategy centred on skilled, healthy and fair work