‘Funerals are getting fancier — they’re like weddings now,’ says undertaker

Irish families and communities get involved in the management of their funerals

Lynne Kelleher

Funeral directors are reporting a trend for increasingly elaborate funerals, a study has shown.

Research on the health and safety of funeral directors and employees in Ireland and Australia found sharp differences in the attitude to death between the two countries.

While Australian directors said a degree of stigma was attached to their work, their Irish counterparts reported feeling part of the community.

In a survey of 45 directors in both countries, one in Ireland told of receiving increasingly complex service demands due to the greater affluence of families.

“People have more money,” they said. “We have to organise catering, we have marquees — it’s crazy. The business has completely changed.”

The Irish funeral director also predicted they would be asked to play a more prominent role in ceremonies in an increasingly secular society.

“The next thing we’re going to have to do is speak in public. It’s going to be a challenge, but that’s the next change, because there’s a shortage of priests.”

Another Irish director said the job had become a “lot more diverse”.

“It’s almost getting like doing a wedding now. We have to buy flowers, do orders of service, mass booklets,” they said.

The author of the study, Dr Natalie Roche, said she found Ireland tended to be more open and accepting of death.

“In Australia, death occurs very much behind closed doors and is managed by institutions. This is reflected in the funeral industries of both countries,” she said.

“Irish families and communities were more involved in the management of their funerals and had a pragmatic approach to death, with the funeral workers undertaking tasks on behalf of the families.

“In Australia, funeral workers direct the funeral process. The control previously held by the family has largely been relinquished.

“Most funeral businesses in Ireland are family-owned and traditionally have been passed on to the next generation without formal or external training, but in Australia, many businesses have been bought out and are owned by global corporations.”

Dr Roche said Irish funeral directors and employees felt a stronger sense of being an important part of the community.

“Their role was well understood. However, they were less concerned about their own health and safety — despite the effects of this, such as drinking alcohol to cope, stress or difficulty sleeping.”

Dr Roche found funeral workers in Australia reported a stronger sense of stigma associated with their role. One Australian reported: “Very often I was humiliated. ‘Oh! You do mortuary work!’”

The study, which was published in the Journal of Death and Dying, said funeral businesses were seen as an everyday part of Irish life.

It found Irish funeral directors and employees reported no impact from emotional demands on their work-life balance.

When asked about available support, they said they talked to their spouse or would go to the pub.

One of the Irish funeral directors interviewed said memories would linger.

“You try not to think about it. You’ll probably never forget. You won’t forget someone’s name. You see their parents, years and years later, you remember.”

Australian funeral workers reported the challenges of dealing with obese bodies, but the use of manual handling equipment made a positive difference in both countries.

In contrast to Australia, the study said “Irish families were reported to take more ownership and control than Australian families after a death, with mourning rituals often within Irish homes reducing body transfer demands on funeral workers”.

It added: “In Ireland, families and community members often carry coffins from the home to the service, further reducing funeral worker manual handling demands.”