Thursday 23 January 2020

Dead end job: Irish undertakers on the ultimate caring profession

It's definitely not a job for everyone but it is a desperately important career path.

Undertakers focus on helping bereaved families
Undertakers focus on helping bereaved families
Tony and Regina Clarke at Clarkes funeral home, Blessington, Co Wicklow
Peter and Robert Massey at their funeral home in Crumlin
John McGhee

Joanna Kiernan

It is not for everyone, but for some it is the ultimate caring profession.

While Ireland is generally more traditional when it comes to the rituals surrounding the death of a loved one, strides are being made in the 'Green' funeral industry here, as well as an increasing array of secular and non-denominational services. 

Tony and Regina Clarke at Clarkes funeral home, Blessington, Co Wicklow
Tony and Regina Clarke at Clarkes funeral home, Blessington, Co Wicklow

Ireland's first ever natural burial ground in a woodland meadow at Woodbrook in Co. Wexford was opened in October 2010, with pioneers behind the move, the Green Graveyard Company, planning to open a number of similar facilities in the coming years.

However, there are increasingly quirky afterlife options to be found abroad. In the USA, it is now possible to be buried in space, so to speak, with a company called Memorial Space Flights, which will launch one's cremated remains into outer space for a fee. It is also possible to have your remains turned into synthetic diamonds as mementoes for loved ones left behind.

But perhaps the most bizarre trend is to be found in one Puerto Rican funeral parlour, which offers to stage the corpse in personalised 'scenes' for their funerals and wakes, such as one eighty-year-old, laid out - or rather sitting upright - in her favourite chair, or the young boxer, whose remains were propped up in a fighting stance, in a makeshift boxing ring, complete with his beloved boxing gloves.

Death is a fascinating thing. Despite all of our theories, be they religious or scientific, we are never fully sure what happens to us once the lights go out.

Many of us prefer it that way. We keep death at a comfortable distance as much as possible and when death arrives for those we love, we are devastated, bereft, gobsmacked even and yet, death is the only certainty we have in life.

No one knows this better than those who deal with death every day. So what makes people choose a career working with the dead, when so many live in fear of it?

Peter and Robert Massey at their funeral home in Crumlin
Peter and Robert Massey at their funeral home in Crumlin

"We all have to be grateful for our health and remember that every day we get up is a gift," Regina Clarke of Clarke's Funeral Directors in Blessington, Co. Wicklow explains.

"It's not a job that you decide 'I think I'd love to be an undertaker!'" she smiles. "You have to have a certain personality. Dealing with death is a huge issue for a lot of people. So you have to be able to deal with that and also the fact that you are dealing all the time with two lots of people - the dead and the living. It can be very emotional."

Regina married into the business over 37 years ago. So she knows what it is like to come into the area as an outsider. Her husband Tony's father set up the funeral directors, so he grew up with death, but initially Regina was understandably apprehensive.

"I remember at first when I'd come into the funeral home, I'd be cleaning up and I'd never turn my back to the coffin. I'd hoover around facing it, always," she smiles. "It doesn't bother me now, because now I know I am doing this for the family and helping them through it. A lot of people just don't know what happens and have a natural fear of death.

"Tony's dad started the business in 1945. He would have been the local undertaker here and he would have made his own coffins. Then Tony took it over in the 1980s and we started to buy in the coffins. At the beginning we just bought in the empty shell and my job when I started was to line the coffins.

"It's very satisfying work," Regina adds. "You're there to help the families, but you are not on show, you are in the background. It's about the deceased and organising their last little journey in this world. It is one of the essential services to people. Death has to be dealt with."

John McGhee
John McGhee

Regina's husband Tony is very matter-of-fact about death, a trait he sees as essential in his line of work.

"You become kind of accustomed to it. You are dealing with it all of the time. If you start letting it get to you you're in the wrong business," he explains. "If someone is there crying you don't want to start crying with them. You have to be strong and be there for them."

But there is a bright side.

"What some people do now is that they'll come in and talk about the various aspects of an upcoming funeral," Tony explains. "Some people don't like doing that; talking about it until something happens but having all of the preparatory work done and having time to make and discuss their decisions often makes it a lot easier for the family.

"There's one guy I know who was extremely ill for a couple of years," Tony's face descends into a grin, "he came in and sorted the whole thing - selected where his grave was going to be and everything and I still see him over in the pub on a Friday night!"

Undertakers focus on helping bereaved families
Undertakers focus on helping bereaved families

Embalmer John McGhee from Meath was not born into the business, but from childhood he knew that he wanted to work with the dead.

"It was something I wanted to pursue for a long time, even when I was young I was always curious about what happens to a person when they pass away and who takes charge then when that happens," he tells me. "I always felt it was something I could do, something that I could handle and something I'm very comfortable with."

After school John became a construction worker in order to fund his studies in the British Institute of Embalmers, which he began in his late 20s. "It's a vocation if you will," he says.

John's work has taught him to value life and particularly his body. "I was always into health, so I look after myself," he explains. "I've seen people with disfiguring illness on the table in front of me and I don't want to go like that."

The job has also made John aware of how superficial we can all be and how pointless it is to spend our lives worrying about how we look or what we drive.

"It doesn't matter how successful or good looking or popular a person was, we're all going out the same way," he smiles knowingly. "We're going to go out and somebody's going to be looking after us and seeing all of our flaws and the scars we try to hide, there's no getting away from that. Your latest fashion accessory, your lovely toned body or expensive implants, they don't matter then.

"I try and cram as much into life as possible because it is so short and when you are putting eight-year-olds into coffins you really take stock - the fact that you have made it this far and that you're lucky to have done so," John adds.

Despite seeing almost every type of death imaginable, John admits that he is still capable of being shocked.

"I'm not completely desensitised. A suicide of somebody my own age will always strike me," he says, looking me in the eye with a genuine intensity that only someone who has seen such things can muster.

As well as embalming the bodies, a process which involves injecting formaldehyde into the carotid artery in the neck and draining the blood out from the juggler vein, John also cleans the bodies, dresses them and does their hair and make-up when necessary.

"If you've lived with a woman for any length of time you should know a little bit about make-up. It's common sense really," he smiles. "I look for a photograph of the person if I can."

John is aware that what he does is not everyone's cup of tea.

"It's only if someone asks me that I'll tell them what I do for a living. Some people do get a bit freaked out," he says. "I like a certain boundary. I leave death at work, I don't bring it home with me, but dead people don't have any issues really, they're dead."

John has no particular faith himself, but he is curious about what happens to people when they die.

"We could be gone tomorrow. So that quest is not the top priority," he explains. "I'm not saying that there isn't anything though because I see people with fear etched into their faces when they've passed away as if they're waiting for something, or clutching rosary beads or a cross and I know that they are obviously quite aware of something towards the end and I want to know what that something is."

Brothers Peter (30) and Robert (27) Massey Maguire are part of the younger generation, which is now coming to the fore of the original Massey family funeral directors in Dublin.

Working in the family business and continuing the 70-year-old legacy started by his grandmother had always been of interest to elder brother Peter, but tragedy led Robert to what he now believes is his "vocation".

"I lost my girlfriend seven years ago and that's what made me come into this business," he explains as we sit in a small garden at the back of their Templeogue premises with the sun beaming down.

"I had no wish to do so before that," Robert adds. "I was studying accountancy at the time, but everything happens for a reason and I had to try and take some positives out of that experience and I feel now I'm where I'm meant to be in life."

The experience taught Robert the importance of what his family did.

"I saw the other side of this business; the helping and the caring side of it and what it can bring to a family at a time like that. So I haven't looked back since and I have to say I love my job and I love looking after people," he smiles.

"It's a unique position," Peter interjects softly. "Thankfully, my parents they gave us all a choice, it was there if we wanted it, but for some there was no calling there for them. It's a great privilege to do what we do and makes you very grateful for everything you have in life."

Death, according to both brothers, is all about perspective. "This work keeps you very present," Robert explains. "I don't look for tomorrow as much, as long as I'm here now, that is one of the privileges of this work - that awareness."

But being constantly surrounded by so much emotion and grief can take its toll.

"You do have to remind yourself, it's a 24-hour business, 365 days a year, but that's not who I am," Robert admits. "We are our own people as well and you have to take holidays and build yourself back up, it does take a lot out of you."

"I look on it that we are all souls or spirits and the body is a shell," he adds. "But it is tough for people. It is very different to see life in someone and then to see them in the coffin because, no matter what, there is no life in them."

Robert has no fear of death. "None whatsoever and that's something I accepted seven years ago when my girlfriend was taken away from me tragically," he explains. "There was no sign of that ever happening and she didn't deserve it, but there was a reason for it. So no matter what I feel, my day is already checked and whatever I do today or tomorrow is not going to affect that."

His older brother Peter isn't as sure. "Personally there's a little bit of apprehension. What will happen? How will it happen? When is it going to happen?" he grins. "I love life. I'm very accepting that one day it will happen, but it's not something I think about too much."

Lately, Peter has been dealing with an influx of clients, who are choosing to plan their own funerals, so that their wishes do not get lost in translation when they do eventually die.

"To give you an idea, I met with a very colourful lady recently and her wish is to be buried in a wedding dress," Peter grins. "Now she is very well and should go on to live a very long life all things going well, but she's making preparations because what she doesn't want is for that element of control being given to her children and the possibility of her wishes not being carried out."

As yet the brothers have not got around to making their own advanced plans. "I will," Peter explains, "It's something I'd like to do." While Robert has one aspect tied down at least: "I know what coffin I want," he laughs. "I have a favourite."

Irish Independent

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