A Funeral Director may not be the most obvious career choice, but for Karen Foster and Ron Grills, it’s the most rewarding occupation they can imagine.
Both are Funeral Directors at Hollibone Funerals, a small Seddon business with a long history within the community arranging and delivering Funeral Services. Established as a Family Business in 1931, it has an enviable reputation within Melbourne’s Western Suburbs.
Both Karen and Ron say it is an incredibly rewarding job, even if it turns a few heads when they tell others what they do for a living.
“It’s not for everyone, and people always say ‘I could never do your job’,” says Karen, who’s been in the Funeral Industry for seven years after working in suicide grief and drug & alcohol counselling.
“I love it when people ask what you do and you say ‘I’m a Funeral Director’ and they go oh! You can see their minds going around and then they ask a lot of questions because of the myths in the undertaker world and from shows like Six Feet Under.” (For the record, Karen and Ron say six feet is an American term, and in Australia the norm is five, seven or nine feet for burials.)
Ron was in sales with Telstra for 25 years and then took a role in real estate. He was looking for a change nearly five years ago when a member of his church recommended he try the business. It was a good six months before he worked up the courage to make a few calls – and he has never looked back.
“It is the best job I have ever had, the most self-satisfying job I have ever had,” he says. “Because you are helping people when they need it. When people come and shake your hand after a service and say thank you, it is the best thing in the world.”
A Funeral Director wears a lot of ‘hats’, the pair say. The role is part counsellor, part event organiser, and part project management. It’s also a mighty big responsibility, and they take that very seriously.
“If you are planning a Wedding you have a year to do that,” says Karen. “When you are planning a Funeral Service you might only have a week or less, so there is a lot of planning and you cannot afford to make a mistake because that is the last journey of that person’s life.”
Their role is to meet with Families, plan the service and organise a venue, whether it’s the chapel on site at their premises on Victoria St, or a separate church, chapel or other venue in the western suburbs. They also coordinate the official death certificate, liaise with the cemetery or crematorium, organise embalming for a viewing if that is the family’s custom, produce programs and photo slideshows for the service and ensure the deceased is dressed in the clothes provided by the family.
Hollibone Funerals organise services of all religious denominations, but the key motivation is adhering to the family’s wishes.
“A Funeral Service for us is whatever the family wants,” says Ron. “It’s more than just arranging a Funeral — it’s all encompassing. I got called an architect one day by a family. It is like a project.”
People in need of their services vary, as do those who have been lost. Sometimes it’s an older person who suffered a long illness, other times a child or someone lost through a tragic accident. Ron and Karen are often asked how they cope working in an industry where they are constantly dealing with people enduring a terribly sad time of their lives. They both say it’s the heartwarming aspect of the role that motivates them, but it doesn’t mean they are unaffected by grief.
“You don’t become accustomed to it because every family is different and sometimes you do get attached,” says Karen. “I had tears the other day for a family with very tragic circumstances. I allow that to happen — I don’t hide my emotions. Even though we have to be professional, we are human and we do have feelings.
“It’s the strength of being able to guide that family through a very difficult sad, emotional time and that’s what we are passionate about.”
Ron sees his role as very much about service rather than sales, and one of the core abilities of a successful Funeral Director is to make families feel less stressed, to ease the burden of such a stressful time, but also to provide them with a safe space to deal with the situation.
“You have to allow people to grieve but if the funeral director can take control and can show the family they know what they are doing, and they are compassionate, then you can see the families relax,” he says. “People always ask how do I do it, and I just say ‘because I love it’.”