25 Oct 2015

Dealing with the Dead

From Insight, 8:12 am on 25 October 2015

In a classroom inside a concrete polytech tower block in Wellington, embalming students are learning the art of preparing the dead to be viewed for the last time by their families.

On a table at the front of the room, lie pots of wax, stage-style make-up, cosmetic brushes and a tool used for prying open the mouths of rigamortis-stiffened bodies.

Listen to Insight - Dying Business Prepares to Boom

For those squeamish about funerals and death, it may come as a surprise that many more people want to get into embalming and funeral directing than there are jobs, and companies are very careful to make sure that those who do make it in are right for the roles.

In fact, entry requirements to get into industry courses, like this embalming one at Weltec, have been tightened in recent years.

It is the only institution in the country that offers a qualification in funeral directing or embalming and, these days, if you want to get into the course you have to be over the age of 20 and have already worked at a funeral home for at least a year.

Once you're in, you need a supervisor and have to be committed to working 24/7. Plus, the students tell me, you can't just think of it as a job: it has to be a vocation.

Close up of side of shiny wood coffin with hearse in the background

Anyone can set themselves up as a funeral director or embalmer Photo: ( RNZ / Alexander Robertson )

The funeral industry is on the verge of a major boom. Figures from Statistics New Zealand show that currently about 30,000 New Zealanders die every year, and, over the next four decades, as the population ages and Auckland's grows at a rapid rate, that number will double.

At the moment the industry is worth about $200 million and The Funeral Directors' Association of New Zealand estimates that over next 30 years that will grow to be nearly $400 million.

While the funeral industry prepares to make the most of the increased business from baby boomers dying, the Law Commission is reviewing the legislation that governs burial, cremation and how funeral businesses should operate.


 As it stands, anyone can set themselves up as a funeral director or embalmer, without any formal qualification or affiliation with a professional association.  

One area the Law Commission is looking at is whether businesses should have to publicly state, on their website or marketing materials, whether their funeral directors, embalmers and crematorium operators are qualified, so potential potential customers can make an informed decision about which company they use.

Rows of heads stones in grassy setting

Makara Cemetery near Wellington Photo: (RNZ / Teresa Cowie )

Jacqueline Cox is a funeral director and embalmer at Vosper's Funeral Home in New Plymouth. She has been working there for two years and is down in the Capital to do the six-week practical component for her embalming qualification.

After a career in the travel industry and time spent raising her now grown-up children, she decided the time was right to follow her dream.

Today, in this Wellington classroom, she is working on a mannequin, practicing getting a dead person, who may have been disfigured by an accident ready to be viewed by loved ones. The students have learned to mould realistic-looking ears out of plasticine - a skill needed when faced with an injured body - and the next step is studying how to make natural-looking facial hair.

As Ms Cox smears wax along the top of her mannequin's eyelid and delicately places eyelashes in a row, she tells me how important it is to her that she prepares the body the best she can, so when a family sees it for the last time they take home a "memory picture" that is comforting and helps with their grieving process.

Even though it is not necessary for her to gain the qualification, she said it's important to her because, as she puts it, "you don't know what you don't know."

Ms Cox also thinks the families of the deceased would appreciate knowing there is a standard that is being met.

"A lot of people just assume that the person caring for their loved is a qualified embalmer, and I think they'd be probably shocked to know there's only about 200-odd qualified embalmers in the whole of the country."

Pierre Erasmus teaches the embalming and funeral directing courses at Weltec and says the industry needs to be professionalised and that qualifications are an important part of that.

"In the future, with public expectation and growth of population, I think it's going to be more important for us to be qualified," he says.

Most important of all, he says, is that embalmers, who are entrusted with sanitising and preserving bodies, are qualified.

Coffins on wall brackets. One dark shint wood the other other open to show plush material inside

Coffins on display at Waitakere Funerals Service in Auckland Photo: (RNZ /Shannon Haunui-Thompson )

The Law Commission says the New Zealand Embalmers Association has repeatedly called for mandatory qualifications, but, at this stage, it believes there is insufficient justification for reform.

The Commission is concerned the cost of trying to enforce qualifications on the funeral workforce would outweigh the benefits.

The Chief Executive of The Funeral Directors' Association, Katrina Shanks, doesn't believe all funeral directors and embalmers need a formal qualifications to keep standards high.

"What we would like to see is that every funeral home has to have a qualified funeral director in it and that way you'll know when you go to a funeral home that there is someone who has got a formal qualification, or is being supervised by someone who has got a formal qualification that's looking after someone that you love."

Ms Shanks said, as it stands, more than 80 percent of funerals are provided by funeral homes that have a qualified employee.

The Law Commission review of Burial Cremation is due to be released next week.

 

Celtic tombstone cross in white marble

A Celtic tombstone cross Photo: (RNZ / Teresa Cowie )