While death was once a hugely important topic among families with many – particularly in the Victorian era – placing a lot of importance on traditional customs and practices, it’s become somewhat of a taboo in recent years. However, staff at one of Australia’s oldest family-run funeral parlours have now lifted the lid on what really goes on behind closed doors, aiming to bust the myths around everything from what happens to your body when you pass, to the hard-working staff who care for both the living and the dead in the days that follow.
SBS’ Untold Story: The Secret Life of Death – set to air on Wednesday – follows staff at Walter Carter Funerals in Sydney as they battle a changing industry and financial pressure from larger corporations, while still honouring the wishes of families as well as those planning their own funerals.
Speaking out about their day to day jobs, two younger recruits open up on the show about how they handle someone’s passing, with one – Mortuary Manager Amber Coote – taking care of the bodies while her friend, Funeral Director Jasmine Cameron, focuses on the needs of the families left behind.
“There’s this perception that funeral workers are these cold, suit-wearing, morbid, masculine, almost robotic types. But we’re in the 21st Century now, and the face of funerals is changing,” Jasmine insists on camera.
“There was a time back in the Victorian era when they were quite morbidly fascinated with death and I think that we’ve actually gone too far the other way… We don’t talk about it enough.”
Elsewhere, while working in a mortuary would be many people’s worst nightmare, Amber reveals it’s a huge passion of hers – and insists the needs of the dead are just important as those of their loved ones. Taking cameras behind closed doors, she changes into scrubs and gloves before tending to the bodies in her care.
“I receive the bodies, I remove battery operated devices, plug and clean… I don’t care about the families, I care about my bodies. Whereas Jasmine cares more so about who the body was and the people that they left behind,” she explains.
Even if a family requests a closed coffin, Amber ensures the body is prepared perfectly every time, saying: “You never know when that lid’s going to go… but it’s also about respecting the body. And no, to dispel all the myths, we don’t put make-up on men all the time.”
Meanwhile, Jasmine takes care of the funeral arrangements and liaising with staff on the front end. Her day to day routine usually includes preparing for the ceremony, cleaning and loading up the hearses, before running the funeral itself.
Of course, it can take a toll on her emotions and she admits, “Some days it’s just s***, and you go home and you cry and you cry and you cry”.
To try to keep a balance, she says she – and many other people working in the industry – try to do something completely different out of work hours. For her, it’s working at a comedy club on weekends.
“Funeral directors are known for burning out,” she adds. “It’s understandable while you deal with other people’s grief… then you don’t notice that you’re starting to feel this niggling sense of hopelessness yourself.”
Amber on the other hand appears to take it in her stride while working behind the mortuary doors. However, she admits on camera that a recent death proved more difficult than any before.
While she is currently overcoming her own grief after losing her partner Nick and being left as a single mum, Amber was also faced with a tragic death of a young boy to suicide.
“Last week was the first time it really hit me,” she says.
Explaining how the young boy “didn’t feel accepted” and tragically committed suicide, she adds: “He was five years older than my son… I went home and held onto him for about half an hour. I said, ‘I don’t care if you’re gay, straight, you want to be a cat or you’re going to vote Liberal, I love you no matter what. It may take a while to get over the Liberal thing, but I’ll love you no matter what.”
Walter Carter funeral home has been running since 1887, having been passed down through generations of Carters ever since. It’s organised more than 60,000 funerals for everyone from prime ministers to rock stars and politicians. However, as larger national corporations take over the industry, they were recently forced to merge with another family-run business outside Sydney in order to stay afloat.
Cameras go on to follow the difficult transition, as Amber is forced to give up her own mortuary and move out to a smaller space – leaving her fellow staff behind.
Managing Director of the company, Dale Maroney, takes it particularly hard as she breaks down on camera while recalling the huge history of the business in her family – highlighting just how much pressure smaller funeral parlours are now under in the transforming market.
In fact, the price of funerals alone has changed dramatically, with Dale’s archive books revealing people once spent £8 (when that was the Australian currency) on a top funeral, whereas now a basic one costs $5,000 – while an extravagant one can be more than $50,000.
“The pressure is always on us to get it right and get it right on the day. You can’t replay a funeral,” she says.
Untold Australia: The Secret Life of Death airs on Wednesday, August 21 at 8.30pm on SBS.