A day in the life of a funeral centre

THE meeting room at Peter Tobin Funerals Ballarat has two burgundy couches, a handsome coffee table and a coffin.

A glass cabinet against a wall holds a selection of urns. In the foyer, a burning candle keeps vigil.

It's early morning and owner-manager Paula Tobin is outside escorting a family across the road to the cemetery.

The mother-of-two is the third-generation Tobin to help Ballarat families say farewell to their loved ones.

The business, which now employs six full-time and six casual staff, was started by her grandfather.

"My earliest memory is having to be quiet," Ms Tobin says.

"Most kids are afraid of (the deceased), but we grew up around coffins.

"They are not anything to be afraid of; they are people who have had a life, who were and are loved."

But despite growing up helping her father, Ms Tobin wasn't always sure she wanted to be a funeral director.

"He told us 'If anyone wants to come into the family business, now's the time'"

"When I was 20 years old, my dad had a family meeting," she says.

"He told us 'if anyone wants to come into the family business, now's the time to speak up because I have had an offer and I am considering it'. I came into the business then."

The job of “looking after and caring for the deceased” can take its toll on the living.

"I don't regret it, but sometimes I think 'gosh this is a hard way to live your life'," Ms Tobin says.

"It’s not reliant on the clock.

"You just have to drop everything you are doing when a family rings you."

Ms Tobin says the 24/7 nature of the work can be hard on family life.

"It can be very stressful and tiring at times," she says.

While there’s no such thing as a typical day, the work usually starts with an all-staff meeting at 9am.

"It's just confirming what the staff are working on, what the requirements are for the day and what's happened overnight," Ms Tobin says.

But well-laid plans can change rapidly with just a phone call.

"We walked out on the weekend thinking we have two funerals scheduled and it is going to be an easy week," she says.

"Then they rang me on Sunday to come in because we had four or five funerals come in over the weekend and they were needing an extra arranger.

"Then overnight there were three deaths… whatever plans there were in place are out the window and you’ve got to re-juggle and resource."

Today, however, things seems to be running to schedule as funeral arranger and conductor Caron Whitefield heads off to a meeting with a family who have just lost a parent.

The family meeting is where the details of the funeral are thrashed out. It’s also often a minefield of heightened emotions and simmering familial discord.

"When we walk into the home of a family, you might have seven or eight family members – children of the deceased or grandchildren – seated around the kitchen table," Ms Whitefield says.

"Each one of them will be at a different level of emotion and grief.

"The lady across the table won't talk or make eye contact… she is really containing her grief.

"There is always one, sometimes two, who take the lead"

"The next person might be making jokes about everything and using humour as their way of dealing with it; the next one over this side could be really angry – they didn't want their mum or dad to die.

"Then there is always one, sometimes two, who take the lead. They are the ones who have always organised everything for the family."

Things get more complicated with the phenomenon of the modern-day blended family and “second wives, step-children, ex-in-laws”, with the funeral director having to act as a mediator.

"We walk into the room and we are actually more or less the umpire between families who are not getting on," Ms Tobin says.

"Before we can make the practical arrangements, the first 10 minutes you have to very quickly assess the situation and work out how it is you are going to make the arrangements so that everyone is happy.

"There are a lot of skills you need to bring with you in this role."

To be successful in his role, embalmer and mortuarist Wayne Hill also needs a lot of skills. Talking is not necessarily one of them.

However sometimes while preparing the deceased for the funeral, he can feel their presence.

Mr Hill, who came into the role four years ago after working as a theatre technician, said the job had been his childhood dream but wasn’t sure why.

"They asked me that at the interview and I said, 'I haven't got a clue, but I always wanted to do it'," Mr Hill says.

"It wasn't until I was sitting in the theatre at St John of God (Hospital), I picked up The Courier and the job was there (advertised) that I thought 'I better apply for this'."

Preparing the deceased, Mr Hill says, usually takes about 40 minutes and starts with washing the body.

Other tools of the trade include mouth-formers and eye-caps to close the lids as well as the ubiquitous make-up base, lipstick, hair dryer and straightener.

The look Mr Hill strives for is “natural”.

"A bit of make up and their own clothes," Mr Hill says.

"A lot of people will say they look as if they're sleeping"

"A lot of people will say they (the deceased) look as if they're sleeping."

Back in the front of the house, Ms Whitefield has returned from her meeting with the family.

With details to be confirmed, cemetery, florist and venue to be booked, lunch is a hurried toasted sandwich at her desk.

There are also booklets and DVDs to be prepared for a funeral scheduled the next day.

Others, including Mr Hill, have moved next door to the chapel to help conduct a memorial service.

Catering manager Kelly Grundy has prepared some 100 gourmet sandwiches, along with silver service tea to be served to the mourners.

Ms Whitefield gives a tour of the premises to a group of student doctors from Melbourne and then returns to finish her paperwork for the day.

Despite conducting funerals everyday, Ms Whitefield and Ms Tobin say it doesn't get any easier.

"It is draining and it is hard to continually front up and do it again the next day," Ms Whitefield says.

"And sometime you can get emotionally weary."

The death of the young can be particularly hard.

"Babies' funerals take up all your energy because the young parents are so totally bereft and you want to make it as lovely as possible," Ms Tobin says.

"Or to have a young person who might have been killed in a motor vehicle accident or a youth suicide all in the one week, it is really intense.

"But you have to keep going and keep all the balls in the air.”