We spoke to an undertaker about death, human nature and Monty Python
‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ is apparently a popular choice for funeral services
Will Green has had a variety of jobs. He’s flipped burgers, milked cows, dressed crabs – but perhaps his most interesting experience in the world of work was working as an undertaker when he was 25 years-old.
Take me through your average day as an undertaker.
There wasn’t really an average day. I was on-call and working for a tiny firm. A “day” at work would usually start with my phone ringing anytime in the day or at night to tell me that I had to go to work, I’d throw on a suit, they’d pick me up from my house, and off we’d go.
How many funerals did you have to go to?
Fifteen over six months. The bulk of the work wasn’t funerals per se but was taking the cadaver (the technical term for corpse) to the hospital for a post-mortem examination.
What did you do in the funerals?
I was always one of the six pallbearers. It’s a physically demanding task – you’re not allowed to hold the coffin with your hands, just your shoulders. So all six pallbearers lean against the coffin at all times whilst it’s on their shoulders so that the coffin was locked in place. We had to do all of this whilst walking in unison, the whole process of moving with the coffin on your shoulders would take around five minutes maximum.
We’d then leave the building and probably have a stress-release cigarette whilst the funeral was happening. Following this, still whilst the funeral’s happening, we’d move all the vehicles – including the hearse – to the back of the crematorium in preparation for the next funeral.
Each service at the crematorium lasts twenty minutes. On any day, the crematorium could go through anything from ten to fifteen services.
What were the most enjoyable elements of the job?
My co-workers – they were the people who’d allow me to emotionally get through the job. We’d make jokes and have banter, all the time, obviously not in front of family. It was the only way to cope. You need a dark sense of humour to do the job I feel.
You’d often see the worst and the best of human nature simultaneously, which was quite interesting: gold-digging relatives (some individuals taking keen interests into certain items of jewellery), family-feuds, all-out selfishness, all-out selflessness, some families – after decades apart – uniting together to celebrate the life of the deceased.
And the least enjoyable parts of the job?
Often the hours. We’d take callouts at night-time, so you would go from being asleep, to being there at the hardest moment of someone’s life. The pay was quite low. The smells were also a challenge, I’d often put some Vicks vapour rub under my nose, and occasionally on the inside of a dust mask if things were really bad. You soon become a bit immune to it after a while though.
What does seeing a dead body feel like?
I saw my first dead body as part of the interview process. I was told that on seeing the dead body, that there were two ways I’d react: freak out and get panicked or become emotionally detached – for me it was the second one, they pulled the white polythene sheet back, I saw the body, an elderly lady – she was pale, slightly clammy looking. It felt strange, almost not real, like I was looking at a waxwork. It was very casual, very matter of fact, they pulled the sheet away, and the body was just, well, there.
Because I was calm, they gave me the job.
What songs were commonly picked for the funeral service?
At the time, Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’ and James Blunt’s ‘Goodbye My Lover’.
Oh, and some people (the ‘please don’t wear black crowd’ as we called them) wanted Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ to play – this always got a laugh from the gathering, sometimes they’d even sing along.
What’s the ratio between the ‘wear black crowd’ and the ‘please don’t wear black crowd’?
75% black and white, 25% colour. So a three to one ratio.
Did working as an undertaker change the way you view the world?
Definitely. It gives you a sense of pragmatism that few other jobs – perhaps other than nursing – might give you. You see people at their worst, and at their best. The tensions that run through many families often come to the surface, so you become very aware of the fact that most families aren’t “normal”.
Did the work ever desensitise you to the concept of, well, death?
Very much so. You become very aware how inevitable death is, because for me, seeing it, death, was a daily occurrence. Many of my friends who had recently lost relatives would approach me for help (because of my job). It was difficult to empathise with them because I became so numbed to the whole death thing.
That was the reason why I quit my job: not because I became too emotional, but because of the lack of it.
Give us an anecdote from your job as an undertaker.
The second funeral I ever worked at was for a young man who had died from an overdose of heroin. His girlfriend, it seemed, had lead him down a road that took him from a decent career to using heroin. His ex-girlfriend was clearly intoxicated at the funeral. When their favourite song was played, she proceeded to get up and dance around the coffin, a fight then broke out with her and members of his family. The police were called.
Anything to lighten the mood?
Related interesting fact: before I worked as an undertaker, I got a job as a litter-picker at Princess Diana’s funeral.
Also, at some Irish funerals, it’s tradition to put a closed bottle of whiskey or spirits into the coffin. When the coffin came to the crematorium, the whiskey inside of it couldn’t get burned for obvious reasons, so the alcohol was removed by the staff at the crematorium and was, erm, taken home.