We spoke to a funeral director about the business of death – and if you live in a city, odds are you're probably getting cremated

Photo by Alina Gonzin’aDale Maroney(far right) and her staff star in ‘The Secret Life of Death’ (SBS).
  • Most people have very little to do with the funeral business if they can help it. Yet death is one of the only guarantees in life and subject of much curiosity.
  • Few know more about it than Dale Maroney, a fifth-generation funeral director in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. She operates a company named Walter Carter Funerals.
  • Business Insider Australia sat down with Maroney to talk all things death.

More than once during our interview, Dale Maroney lifts her face to the ceiling and feigns a conversation with her dead father.

It’s no surprise Maroney is comfortable with the gag. As a fifth-generation funeral director, she’s seen more death in her lifetime than almost anyone.

“The fact is one day everyone is going to die one day and there has to be something done about that,” she told Business Insider Australia.

“Western societies are really precious about [death] and I think that actually can be a disservice for people because when they lose somebody special to them they don’t have the right coping mechanisms to actually deal with it.”

From cradle to grave

For close to two centuries, funerals have been the family business.

“Growing up, the dinner table conversation was always interesting,” she said.

After finishing a four-year social work degree at university, it’s perhaps no surprise she knocked on the door of her father’s business and asked for a job. All these years later, and with only a fourteen-year dalliance working in real estate, she has no regrets.

“I have an entire wall of thank you notes. What other business do you know where people go to the trouble of sending those?”

Lifting the veil

Yet, until someone close dies, it’s an area few have contact with. On average, Australians don’t organise a funeral until they are in their 40s.

“When I tell people what I do for a living they’re kind of taken aback but then they’re always curious and immediately have questions,” Maroney said.

One of the most common questions she gets is, ‘do more people get buried or cremated?’

The answer is surprising.

“Cremated. Across the country, it’s about two-third cremations to one-third burials. The number of cremations gets even higher though in cities – it’s not cheap to get buried in Waverly cemetery, you know?”

Some facts are less surprising. For example, secular ceremonies are now more common than religious ones in an increasingly non-religious Australia.

A point of difference

Funerals accordingly come in all shapes and sizes.

“Your idea of what a funeral is and another person’s idea can be very, very different,” she said.

“Australia is a very multicultural country and each culture has its own ways of dealing with death. Likewise, every individual has different needs.”

Funerals then can range from simple “disposals” of a body to extravagant events with horse-led mourning carriages and an elaborate tomb.

Funeral Video AustraliaNot all funerals are the same.

“The other day there was a funeral for a street person and it was actually held in a square in Woolloomooloo. It was a plain coffin and the people who attended they write the farewells on the side of the coffin because the guy who passed away liked to do some graffiti. So it spoke of who he was, and, and what happened and gave you an opportunity to participate. It was a long way from a Catholic requiem for example,” she said.

Another man wanted to be buried with the ashes of his old dog at his feet.

“Everybody has a story and I think that’s one of the intrinsic joys that our staff have is getting to unravel that story and getting to learn a little bit about who this person was that passed away. We get to discover, along with the family, what their footprint was on this world.”

That’s not to say that its always pretty, or that those left behind always see eye to eye.

“We once had a situation where the two daughters of the deceased literally wouldn’t even sit in the same room. Our staff member had to consult with one before taking their ideas to the other. Inevitably they disagreed on everything.”

“It’s a shame because funerals, whatever that might look like, are a mechanism to grieve together and remember a loved one.”

The business of death

Despite the permanence of death, the funeral business is a service industry and – just like any other business – it is in a state of change.

“There are a lot of overheads, it’s a very labour-intensive job and you’ve got to bring in contractors for all sorts of different jobs.”

With death only one of two guarantees in life, demand for funeral services is always steady – although it does peak in winter when the cold weather nudges the total number of deaths upward.

Gary RussellNo one knows how they’ll handle a dead body until they encounter one.

Given the intimate nature of the work, it’s a little surprising to learn there are a few big corporations that dominate the industry.

InvoCare, for example, is a publicly listed company on the Australian stock exchange (ASX). It operates national ‘brands’ like White Lady Funerals and Simplicity Funerals as well as more than 30 other state-based ones. Each captures a different segment of the market even if they are ultimately all part of the same conglomerate.

Operating those economies of scales with coffin orders, for example, it’s a challenge for independent operators like Walter Carter to compete. Many independent operators, as their ages creep up, simply choose to sell out.

Maroney herself isn’t sure what she’s going to do when the time comes for her to step away from the business. She said her own kids aren’t interested in becoming the sixth generation to take up the family trade and she’s ok with that.

“Most parents might want their kids to become involved in the family business but they, quite rightly, also want their kids to do what they’re interested in. For this work, you have to have a passion for it otherwise it’s not something you can do.”

The undertaking

It begs the question: what does one need to thrive in a dying business?

“You’ve got to want to help people first and foremost,” Maroney said. “But you also have to be good at the technical side of the job. You have to be a master at administration and you have to be able to drive the right vehicle. Oh, and you’ve got to have the stomach for it.”

Alina Gozin’aMortician Amber Coote and funeral director Jasmine Cameron.

That’s because until you’ve been exposed to one, you don’t know how you’ll handle a dead body.

“What you see on TV is very sanitised. You’re certainly not smelling the body. Most people underestimate this kind of work but they really couldn’t do what we do.”

“Unless you’ve been exposed to death in some way, it’s really not on your radar.”

Accordingly, most of Walter Carter’s staff had experience with death before coming on board.

“We’ve got an ex-cop, we’ve got people who worked in healthcare. We have one gentleman whose daughter was sick and almost died. She recovered but he came into contact with the industry and he got curious and wanted to know more,” Maroney said.

But there are also some surprises. For example, Maroney’s youngest staff member Jasmine Cameron is just 28 years old.

“Jasmine is not your typical expectation of a funeral director. She’s amazing with the families though and she’s intelligent and she cares,” Maroney said.

“When people get to know us, they find we’re reasonably normal human beings, funnily enough. We like a good laugh and a good joke because we have to be sombre and sober a lot of the time so we have to counterbalance that somehow.”

“We also realise that things can be fine one day and the next you can be dead, so you really should embrace life.”

If you’d like to see more of Dale Maroney and Walter Carter Funerals, they appear in the documentary “The Secret Life of Death” on SBS On Demand.

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