TOP HAT AND TALES...
the life and interesting times of a Funeral Director
David Norton is a Cambridgeshire-based Funeral Director who, in the space of his 39-year career, has been involved with 20,500 funerals – and counting! I’ve had the pleasure of working with David in recent years and thought, who better to ask about the changing role of Funeral Directors and what the job has meant to him…
How did you get into the funeral business?
It’s strange, but when leaving school I was always going to be a Police Officer or a funeral director – and I’ve actually done both! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both careers and got a lot of satisfaction from each one. So I started as a Police Officer and then later my wife and I owned a restaurant in Bournemouth. This was seasonal work though and could get a bit boring during the quieter months. One day I went in to town to buy a new toaster, walked into the local job centre, and there was an advert for a funeral assistant. So in 1979, I began as an assistant with a Funeral directors in Dorset, soon moving on to arranging and conducting funerals.
How did you progress within the business?
In 1984 I joined the Greater Peterborough Co-Operative Society as a Funeral Director, then, became a branch manager and, later, an area manager. I retired in 2002 and then, after a short break, returned to Funeral Directing, which I’m still doing, 20,500 funerals later!
What skills are required to be a good Funeral Director?
A lot of patience, the ability to listen, a caring attitude, remembering that you are the custodian of a person who is dearly loved by those left behind. You have to have respect for that deceased person from start to finish. On the day of the funeral, you need to have done your homework and planned in advance to make sure everything runs smoothly – for example, every church has its own variations in terms of entrances and layout that could, quite literally, trip you up on the day! Or if you know there is a rift in the family, you watch like a hawk to ensure nothing ‘kicks off’, as it were. Thankfully 99 per cent of the time it doesn’t! The Funeral Director shouldn’t be the centre of attention – we’re there to guide the family and to ensure the deceased continues to be treated with respect. I appreciated a comment from a family recently who thanked me for “being there and guiding them but not being seen”. And that’s a big compliment, because I believe that’s the way it should be done.
What have been among the most memorable and the most challenging moments?
I’ve met many families over the years and hope that, no matter who the family has been, I’ve treated them all them same. Although, as you can imagine, some can be more challenging than others. You know by experience as soon as you meet a family whether you can be more light hearted with them or have to put on your ‘Funeral face’ as I call it.
I’ve worked with a wide range of people – from all ages and backgrounds, to the aristocracy, and the military. I’ve arranged a number of funerals for my local Royal Air Force Base, one of which was for a Station Commander who had only been in charge for about six weeks. This was quite something as it was during the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ and security was very high. Sadly he left a young wife and two lovely children.
I have had great satisfaction in doing this work, but it can get emotional and this is very difficult to hide at times, especially if you find yourself getting close to a family. I had this experience with a family who had lost their daughter to heart problems at the age of five. She had spent a lot of time in Great Ormond Street hospital. This hit home with me as one of my sons also spent a lot of time in that same hospital from the age of three months, where he was the first in his age group to survive a heart operation and the first time that particular operation had been done there in the early 1960’s. We were lucky – he underwent five heart operations over the years and, against all the odds, he made it to the age of 49.
How has the job changed over the years?
It’s very different in many ways to when I started. There were no computers then, less paperwork. If you arranged a funeral you saw it all the way through to the day of the funeral and after care, but now families may deal with more than one person, such as an arranger who organises the funeral and a Funeral Director who conducts on the day. There are also huge changes in terms of what families request, such as music and visual tributes. Being a somewhat old fashioned Funeral Director, I’ve had to learn to adjust to these requests!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and stories David...