Working with the dead – the funeral profession

In a normal year, it’s expected that there would be around 600,000 deaths in the UK but, as we know all too well, 2020 has not been a normal year. One of the sectors pushed to new limits this year by COVID-19, is the funeral profession. Funeral directors and their staff have been severely tested by the pandemic and have had to make fundamental changes to the ways in which they work with the deceased and their families.

Instead of offering the full service that they would normally take such pride in, funeral arrangement meetings take place remotely; loved ones have not been able to view the deceased, or touch the coffin; there’s been an unprecedented and unforeseen increase in direct cremations (where family are not present and there is little or no ceremony); there have been no limousines or family funeral cars; numbers at the funeral have been restricted, or, to the acute distress of many families at the start of the pandemic, no funeral service has been possible at all and certainly no family and friends have gathered together to remember the person who has died.

Funeral staff are now talking to our team at Professional Help about the emotional impact of having worked through a relentlessly difficult year, quite unlike any other. Alongside a core team of staff, we have a 200-strong team of associate counsellors who are based all around the UK, some of whom provide counselling support to funeral directors themselves or their bereaved clients.
Under the restrictions of COVID-19, it has often fallen on funeral directors to break bad news to an already grieving family; rather than ‘we’ll do everything we can’, the conversation has had to cover all the things they couldn’t do.

We have seen a rise in the number of funeral professionals accessing our services, although few working over the last few months have had sufficient time for real reflection and engaging in proper self-care. However, we anticipate that demand will rise again this autumn, as the emotional fallout from the pandemic really begins to materialise, combined with the usual seasonal pressure on an already extremely tired and emotionally stretched workforce and with fears of a second wave.

Clapping for key workers

Long hours and a culture of being ‘always on call’ is common in the industry, especially in the independent sector, and funeral staff have found themselves at the worst points of the pandemic with up to double the workload, colleagues who are self-isolating and unable to be hands-on, alongside unprecedented logistical challenges. In March, the UK Government recognised those responsible for the ‘management of the deceased’, including employees of funeral homes, cemeteries, and crematoria, as ‘key workers’, and yet we observed that they seemed to be noticeably absent from the recognition that was afforded (quite rightly) to NHS doctors and nurses and other key workers, including those working in schools, pharmacies, the food supply chain and the post office. In short, it seemed that nobody was clapping for the people caring for both the dead and the bereaved.

In recent years, there’s been a shift away from traditionally formal funerals towards more personalised services, which has helped grieving families feel more in control over the final act of care they can perform for their loved one; however, it feels as though the pandemic has forced us, societally, to take some significant steps backwards. Most independent funeral directors describe their work as a vocation rather than a career; certainly, it is far more than a job to the vast majority of people who we speak to, and they strive to provide the best for every family they care for. But COVID-19 has taken some of their ability to do that away, with an impact on their sense of autonomy as a professional. What’s more, so many funeral directors have been exceptionally busy over the last few months, leaving them at greater risk of the effects of cumulative stress and even burnout – which can skew our perceptions and add to that sense of never quite being or doing enough, and can lead to self-reproach, even though in reality the restrictions were out of their control.

Feelings of guilt and trauma

Symptoms that may be experienced by a professional struggling in the wake of the pandemic include but are not limited to: feelings of guilt or shame about something the person did or didn’t do, or observed; feelings of anger or directing blame; self-doubt and low self-esteem; feeling haunted and anxious; withdrawing socially; possible misuse of drugs or alcohol. There may be signs of trauma; some funeral professionals had to work, especially in the earlier stages of the pandemic, in conditions that potentially put them, their staff and their own families at risk (it isn’t just hospitals and care homes who were short of PPE, though again, this was somewhat under-reported). For some time, they may have worked in a pervading atmosphere of fear that was frequently likened to the early days of the AIDS epidemic, where so much was unknown.
While funeral staff and others who work alongside death are no strangers, obviously, to difficult emotions and supporting families during highly stressful and upsetting times, their role usually involves making a terrible situation more bearable in whatever ways they can. All of us who work with independent funeral directors, in particular, have heard the phrase, ‘If it’s legal and it’s possible, we’ll do it’ when it comes to trying to help families to have the send-off they want for their loved one – funeral people are passionate about giving their clients what they want and accommodating their need to be able to say their last goodbye; and there is research to support the view that the significance of funerals for bereaved people is in striking the right balance between fulfilling the wishes of the deceased and meeting the needs of those who are left to mourn them.2

Commercial pressures

However, even before COVID-19, the funeral profession had been under stress for quite some time. Media criticism of seemingly large profit margins and price hikes, issues with mis-sold prepaid funeral plans from unscrupulous third-party providers, a Competition and Markets Authority investigation, and the looming (and longstanding) threat of regulation of what has traditionally been a self-regulating industry have contributed to a unique set of pressures, even before the added, extraordinary challenges brought about by the pandemic. Funeral directors are walking the tightrope of striving to be caring and ethical businesses (which the vast majority are) and attempting to satisfy investors and shareholders while working to ever-shrinking profit margins.

How does the industry work?

In the vast majority of cases, bereaved families will engage the services of a funeral director to care for the person who has died and to arrange the funeral, liaise with other operators eg crematoria or burial grounds and even take care of the niceties, including flowers, post-funeral gatherings and memorials. Approximately 4,000 funeral directors are operating in the UK, ranging from small independent businesses to large national providers. The industry is currently unregulated, but most independents belong to one of two major trade organisations, SAIF (the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors) and/or the NAFD (National Association of Funeral Directors), who require adherence to strict practice standards, striving to provide the most compelling benefits for both businesses and individuals, while also attempting to act as the industry’s own ombudsman and safeguard for the public. Funeral directors have traditionally been family businesses, and many of those operating today can trace their history back several decades in their local communities.

A changing workforce

The care of the dead has also, since the late 19th century, been primarily a white, male, middle-aged (and older) preserve, and women still account for only 18% of people working in funeral homes, mortuaries and crematoria, though the demographics are changing.3 Over the last 10 years, we have witnessed a significant increase in the number of women working in and leading the profession, now occupying all of the key roles from funeral arranger (and provider of support to the bereaved family) to directing funerals and setting up and running their own funeral businesses. The industry still hasn’t achieved parity, yet it is noticeable that the age profile of senior staff members and business owners has reduced, and the sector appears to be less skewed and more engaged in attracting the ‘next generation’ of leaders.

In common with other professions with a disproportionately male workforce, such as the military, police and fire services, and perhaps partly as a result of the sometimes distressing nature of the work, something of a ‘stiff upper lip’ culture can often be observed in the funeral profession, with common coping mechanisms ranging from the deployment of dark humour to stoicism and overwork used to offset the pressures of the job.

There is also no consistent professional supervision structure, so emotional support at work may often be lacking. As awareness about emotional and psychological health at work increases more generally, we are being called on to provide supervision, reflective spaces and debriefing to those in the industry who see things most people never see and to offer containment, post-trauma support, training and development, and counselling where needed. We have been working in this way with SAIF member businesses for a number of years via SAIF Support, and more recently, we have partnered with AOIC (the Association of Independent Celebrants). Specifically during the pandemic, we have also provided a helpline service for the NAFD and the FFMA (Funeral Furnishing Manufacturers’ Association). We’re keen to support as many individuals working in the funerals profession as possible.

What do we look for in our therapists?

When recruiting associates, we look for counsellors who have undertaken additional education and training in bereavement care and have a more sophisticated understanding of the grief and loss experience than the outdated and widely discredited ‘stage’ models that still, disappointingly, form the cornerstone of some counselling training courses. We want to work with counsellors who have high levels of empathy, a common-sense approach and who are not fazed by working alongside trauma and death. We do provide training about the funeral industry and regular CPD webinars on a range of topics, including (but not limited to) the latest developments in grief theory and research. We also continually emphasise the importance of self-care for all of us in caring professions, so we provide ad-hoc mentoring and support as well as ensuring all our staff and associates undergo regular clinical supervision. Our ethos is to take excellent care of our associates, who in turn take excellent care of both the funeral profession and bereaved people themselves.

Closing thoughts

Many funeral staff, thankfully, do have excellent peer support within their businesses or teams. Some, like SAIF members, have access to external, professional help. Most people will emerge from the difficulties of the last year without any long-lasting effects. In fact, although there has been nothing quite comparable to this pandemic in our lifetime, in the aftermath of previous large-scale traumatic events such as terrorist incidents or major accidents, many first-line responders and professionals involved have been found to experience ‘post-traumatic growth’ – so even after the most terrible events, they are able to learn new strategies, a new outlook or take away something positive from their experience. We will all, certainly, be better emotionally prepared for what to expect if there is another wave of the virus, and we hope that those in the funeral profession can take confidence in the expertise they demonstrated and the resilience shown this year.

In order for this to happen, however, we still need to care for the carers. It’s our hope that this article shines a light on a forgotten frontline of key workers, as there should be widespread appreciation for the job all key workers, including funeral staff, have done and continue to do during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. Feeling undervalued or ignored (or even worse, put at risk), in an already stressful job, helps nobody’s mental health. At the best of times, funeral professionals take the work they do extraordinarily seriously, working long, hard hours, and have a habit of neglecting their own health and wellbeing in the process – it’s even more important that we support them now, at a time when they are needed more than ever.

Written by Catherine Betley & Joanna Williams of Professional Help Ltd for the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy Magazine October 2020.