Lifting The Lid; Life In Death
“Death is one moment, and life is so many of them” Tenessee Williams
My first encounter with Udens was on a warm, humid summer's day after a self-imposed career break - the less said about that the better! I had spent a disproportionate amount of time looking for the ‘right role’ in a very different industry I'd spent 15 years working in, interviewing with companies who used more acronyms than common sense and asked irrelevant questions such as;-
- If you were a colour what colour would you be? (Answer: insert colour of company logo for extra Brucie bonus points)
- If you were an animal, what animal would you be and why? (Blobfish! … because I knew they would Google it afterwards and I wanted the indulgence of amusing myself).
In short, I had reached the end of my career as I knew it. I had achieved a lot from a young age, in a demanding industry, but my get-up-and-go had got-up-and-gone and it was time for a new challenge.
I had prepared myself for a formal, sombre meeting at Head Office in Eltham. I didn't expect a young, talkative, impeccably dressed man with a big smile to answer the door. Cue: Matt Uden. This was no Addams family out-take… Although one of our more playful Conductors does a fabulous impression of Lurch. I remember laughing a lot, I remember listening to Matt expertly wax-lyrical about what a Funeral Director does and I remember his three main questions;-
- Are you honest?
- Are you nice?
- Can you talk confidently to lots of different people?
Answers: yes… sometimes… and yes. A few months later and the significance of these questions became a reality - I had become the newest member of staff at W. Uden & Sons.
Are you honest?
It's always tempting when starting a new job to over-inflate your abilities, but this is no ordinary job and the degree of honesty expected of us is multi-faceted. It can be as simple as admitting you're not sure how to complete a certain task through to having difficult but transparent conversations about natural decomposition with the next of kin who are grieving the loss of their loved one.
It's also necessary to employ honesty when a mistake is made, our windows of opportunity to rectify any over-sights are so minimal and it is vital that mistakes are recognised swiftly and with integrity. Some of our best policies and procedures we have now, derived from someone making an unintentional error of judgement.
One of the challenging elements to this that I am still learning is delivering essential information to next of kin in highly charged emotional situations. There is a fine art to this and comes down to the use of language, timing and rapport that exceeds the simple requirements of honesty in the workplace. Facts were King & Queen of all communication in my previous roles but they were utilised in a much more simplistic and detached manner then what is required of me now.
Honesty really is the best policy and we do everything possible to follow that with empathy and compassion as the situation demands.
Are you nice?
It seems like a natural prerequisite of anyone working in a Funeral Director’s but it is easily underestimated. I've learnt that you need to give people the opportunity to be able to relate to you which, in turn, gives you small snippets of information that can make a huge difference. Perhaps your husband was a huge sports fan or your wife loved a certain colour, maybe your dad worked at a local bus garage all his life or your mum lived in the same house for 50+ years. All these little things come from talking to families and next of kin in a friendly, open and respectful manner that defines niceness in the role. They can also be incorporated into the funeral arrangements and play a touching part on the day itself.
We aim to take as much stress out of the situation as possible and guide people through one of life's hardest experiences. Most of us were already acquainted with death and loss before joining Udens - we will explore that in later blogs - so we understand that it is not easy to talk to us so openly on something so personal to you.
Personally, I like hearing the stories and anecdotes from families who bring their loved one to life in their memories. It's a small part of what makes our job worthwhile.
Can you confidently talk to lots of different people?
Beyond the discussions we have with next of kin, prior to working at Udens I had never considered the sheer quantity of people needed for a funeral service to take place. When Matt asked me if I could confidently talk to people I had assumed he was referring to the families under our care and the range of staff across our branches. What I didn't realise at the time was the expansive network of professional acquaintances we rely on to provide a great service. In any one day I may speak to the nurses or mortuary staff in care homes or hospitals, local GP’s, Coroners offices, cemeteries and crematorium staff, registry offices, solicitors/executor's carrying out final wishes, Ministers/celebrants/clergy and local church personnel…. Not to mention our own colleagues and bosses!
I've always worked in a customer facing role and this element of the job is an extension of all my experience to date. The learning curve here has been understanding the volume of work that goes on behind the scenes to relay information - and that's without all the paperwork!
As I approach my first full year in a new career and a new workplace, I will be blogging about what we do and see along with the history of the Udens family, our amazing teams and all the hard work that goes into not only our funerals but the management of the branches, vehicles and procedures that underpin our core principles. Although our jobs can sometimes be difficult and challenging, hopefully through these blogs we can help to demystify any fears and general worries about death. In a short period of time I have witnessed the truly touching moments and stories that follow us all through our family and friends and continues on afterwards. There is so much life in remembering those who have died and protecting their final journey, it is a privilege so often described as rewarding.
Before we get to work composing the next blog, I started with Matt so I thought I would end it the same way and briefly recall a story to you all that highlights my time at Udens so far.
Whilst working at our Sidcup branch for a few months Matt was conducting a funeral one day and asked me to watch the team prepare and leave the branch before heading off to meet the family at their home address. With all the checks completed and everyone in place to depart, Matt suggested I walk discreetly beside him as he paged the vehicles onto the High Street (leading the cortege). This is done from every branch, for every funeral, and repeated at the pick up address with the family present.
As I tried to keep pace with Matt’s well practiced steps at 50% of his natural walking speed (he could be a professional sprinter), he said; “What I want you to remember is this - that is someone's husband, dad, partner, son, brother, uncle…. He deserves our utmost respect. What you do in the office is just as important as what we do on the day itself. All I am doing now is taking him back to his family and loved ones. I am taking him home.”
That day stays with me even now many months later, for so many reasons, but mostly because it made me think: I should have changed my career a long time ago.
Thank you for reading this blog, we would love to hear from you on Facebook and Instagram as we continue to share our stories with you all.
Until next time,