When the fog feels like a cage without a key

Charles 11 Comments



All so-called caring professions suffer from it. The difference is that they talk about it. If the British stiff upper lip is making its last stand, it’s down among the undertakers where resistance is mutely fiercest.

We’re talking about Can’t-Take-It-Anymore Syndrome, aka compassion fatigue, burnout, depression, nervous breakdown.  Read all the symptoms here.

How could undertakers possibly be exempt from burnout? After all, they deal, day after remorseless day, with grief and trauma. It’s not just that they see things they can never forget, they are the ones who have pick up the pieces — literally. Everyone else at a disaster scene, the police and the paramedics, has counsellors on hand to tend to their emotional health. Not the undertakers.

Burnout happens to undertakers too, of course, but mostly in a quietly desperate and deeply lonely way. Support networks in the industry, where they exist, tend to consist of friendly fellow undertakers or close family. This is an industry where there’s an expectation on you to grin and bear it – dammit, we’re funeral people, this is what we do —  as soldiers say to a wounded comrade, you shouldn’t have joined the army if you can’t take a joke. The trade associations, NAFD and Saif, offer no formal emotional support or counselling services to their members. The predicament of those who work outside supportive family businesses – in the big chains, for example – looks perilous.

Some burnout sufferers manage to maintain a mask of professionalism behind which they grow jaded and despairing. Vengeful, even. Remember that horrible old kids-hating teacher when you were at school? Like that. Remember that FSO who stole the purse of the dead woman from her bedside? He said: “For six-and-a-half years I have been in this job and have seen some very vile, nasty and horrible things. Decomposed bodies, people that have been run over, things like that. I saw the purse, I did take it and I thought it was the way out. I have never done anything like this before and I’m sorry.”  We should be sorry, too – sorry for him.

Other uncharacteristic behaviours include being horrible to dead people, partners, children. A lot of innocent people get caught up in the crash-and-burn. One way out for a business owner is to ignominiously sell up, which is why Funeral Service Partners temptingly target crash-and-burn undertakers: ‘A funeral director’s profession requires total commitment and over the years this can cause exhaustion and burnout. With FSP’s investment, you can retain your commitment to your company, but begin to breathe again too.’

British undertakers don’t talk about this much, not publicly anyway – nowhere googlable. No surprise there; they’re not a pen-to-paper species. But the American undertaker Caleb Wilde has talked about it quite a lot, bravely and from his own experience:

I take 40 mg of antidepressants each day.  I’ve done so since my last dangerous bout with burnout some five years ago.  Life loses its value.  I lose empathy.  And the boundaries that stand between me and self-harm become very thin … You think about leaving your wife because you see just how awful you’ve become and you don’t want that person to be near the ones you love. 

You can read more of Caleb’s thoughts on this here and here and here

Given what to many looks like the most unhealthy emotional diet in the labour market, dealing with death all day, it’s amazing to me (once an outsider, always an outsider) just how emotionally healthy most undertakers are. Sure, there are some who are protected by their lack of emotional intelligence, but the good ones, of whom there are far more than people think, are men and women of deep sensibility and an extraordinary ability to throw themselves fresh into the fray, new every morning. It’s astonishing and moving.

Which isn’t to say that there probably isn’t more they can and ought to do to promote healthymindedness. I wonder, for example, whether all this talk about service is such a good thing, as in: I didn’t choose the profession, the profession chose me. The highest and most fulfilling experience in life can be that feeling and recognition of following your calling … Funeral service is one of the few professions or vocations where doing your job equates to “dispensing mercy.” [Source

Is that a bit overegged? Sanctimonious, even? As for selflessness, it can be taken to extremes. Too much of it, and you’re left without any self at all. Mightn’t a better relationship with the bereaved be defined as a more collaborative one – for the emotional benefit of both parties?

In the same way, I have to confess to wincing every time I hear an undertaker or arranger talking in that possessive way about ‘my families’.

Again, it’s an American who talks about this most articulately. This time, it’s deathbiz guru Alan Creedy:

Are you addicted to helping others or are your customer relationships creating unhealthy responses? Perhaps you’ve fallen victim to the Rescuer Syndrome. One of the common threads I am discovering as I get deeper into the study of culture within the funeral profession is the belief that one must be a “suffering servant” doing what we are told and working long hard hours for low pay. This belief often becomes a badge of honor for some. Funeral Directors are supposed to be caregivers. But too many take it too far. They hate confrontation, preferring encounters that result in gratitude if not downright worship. They begin to define themselves by their ability to generate effusive gratitude on the part of those they serve. 

Whatever the truth of that, and you’ll probably say that most Brit undertakers take a more down to earth view of their work than this, there is clearly more that undertakers ought to be doing to look after themselves and each other when they encounter emotional bad weather. 

UPDATE: 07-11-2013 @ 11.52. I have just received the following response from the NAFD:

“Funeral Directing is first and foremost a caring profession, with funeral directors and arrangers looking after the bereaved in often difficult and distressing circumstances. Like the emergency services and other caring professions, this means employees within the funeral service sector can sometimes suffer as a result of the stresses of caring for both the living and the dead.

“The NAFD has discussed the impact of compassion fatigue within the funeral profession and provided advice to members to make sure they take proactive steps to look after their employees’ emotional wellbeing – as part of their duty of care as employers. Individual employers within the profession offer differing levels of support, with some offering access to outsourced counselling support for their employees and others actively encouraging staff to share the details of particularly stressful or upsetting experiences so to encourage peer support – making it easier for staff, who may be feeling low, to speak up.

“The NAFD has also had discussions with a couple of organisations which provide counselling and psychotherapy support to discuss this issue and member firms are signposted to these organisations through the members section of the NAFD website.”


    1. Charles

      Fair play Nick, I see your point. Perhaps the post will help you think some more about how to take care of yourself – I hope so!

  1. Charles

    What an interesting article! When I worked for one of the larger funeral companies, the local vicar was our go to person if we needed to talk to someone.
    Now I own my own funeral company, it is something I am aware of and I have a formal counselling process in place. However, I think with independent funeral companies, most are family owned. We often turn to our own family and discuss what ever it is that has gotten to us that day.
    My Mother is a mortuary manager in London and on my first day of working for a funeral company she just said “Remember, it isn’t your grief to have.”
    That hit home and that is what I always have in the back of my mind. It really isn’t my grief to have, it belongs to someone else. You do get the odd occasion that for whatever reason, just gets to you. This is where Mum comes in for a cup of coffee, good chat, good sleep and carry on the next day.

    I have always found it totally unacceptable that the emergency services have more resources than we do. It always perplexed me that they get extra “distress” pay or time off for seeing something particularly nasty yet we are just expected to have a cup or tea and move on. But this is the responsibility of the owner of the company or the managers of larger companies to put in place.

    Some people just fall into this job. Some are born into it. Some, like me, fell into it and one their first day found it was what they wanted to do for the rest of their life.

    I love what I do. Perhaps all funeral directors are victims of Rescuer Syndrome, but if you are a good funeral director, you really do care and you really do want to help people.

    You don’t always see the family again. You don’t always have a family give you a card to say thank you. It isn’t about that. It is about helping someone when they don’t know what to do next. It is about being compassionate while maintaining a professionalism.

    Funeral directors in general have a pretty dark sense of humour. I, amongst many others, ride a motorbike and have a blast to clear our heads. Some go fishing, some go to the pub.
    Because we have been left alone for such a long time to just cope and get on with it, we have. We have found what works for us. I know I have a chat with Mum, but if she isn’t around, a blast on my motorbike will sort me right out!

    Everyone has their own methods of coping with their job, you just have to figure out what works for you.

  2. Charles

    I am so pleased to this subject aired. Coming into the profession from the voluntary sector, where the need for emotional support is much more widely accepted, I’ve been thinking a lot about it. I know recently when I had three funerals in a row of young men, I needed to stop & think (& feel) & find some antidote in the rest of my life. & I’m not working day-in day-out.

    I’ve also been thinking that this is maybe the reason we see some people in the profession become cavalier & insensitive: that they’ve developed those attitudes as a protection.

    I don’t think counselling is necessarily what’s needed: or only when things have gone much too far. What many caring professions (& isn’t this one?) have is regular discussion amongst colleagues, not only of the grief we see, but the feelings of inadequacy that come up. It’s also really helpful to have a culture where one can admit to mistakes & failures of sympathy, rather than having to hide them. If this was more common I think many more bereaved families would have a positive experience.

  3. Charles

    I agree Ruth. I don’t need counselling – I need (and am fortunate to receive) great support from friends who are in the same line of work as me: we can share and to some extent unburden ourselves of all the bad stuff we see every day. It’s not only about the immediate bereavement that we become a part of – some people have completely shitty lives and their most recent bereavement is just one more thing they have to deal with. I am often shocked at what some people cope with day in day out – anyone passing them in the street wouldn’t have a clue.

  4. Charles

    I agree of course that this ‘profession’ is yet another where the facility to unload is undoubtedly a requirement, along with emergency services and all those who work at the sharp end of life’s crap.

    What is needed in all cases is a safe haven for sharing your fears, despondency and of course the good times. Only those who understand, understand – if you get my meaning. I have never really rated counselling of the listening variety and it isn’t necessary for most people most of the time – and it brings no solutions. Much better I have found, after a lifetime of supporting people in crisis, is a big friendly shoulder to cry on, a good ‘chewing over of the facts with those who understand and honesty about how the situation has left you feeling….. somewhere to vent your spleen and someone to offer you space for a fag, a cuppa or a pint. For most people this will be enough.

    I would suggest that those of a tender nature wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to a life at the sharp end, so in most cases, your colleagues are by far the best people to be with provided they are the right sort of colleagues. Choose your confidantes wisely and carefully.

    I don’t think I like the inference that those who seek to work in these fields are pathetically addicted in some way to gratitude. Who wouldn’t like a job where a hundred people thank you immediately? Is that so strange?
    It certainly wasn’t the reason I was drawn to celebrancy but it is definitely one of the bonuses, having also worked in large business corporations where gratitude for your efforts was none existent. Sure there are always going to be those drawn to any job for the wrong reasons…….they soon either burn out completely or show up as an anomaly. And come the day when it depletes me more than it lifts me I shall bow out.

    Great subject.

  5. Charles

    Working together as a husband and wife team means we have little need for a professional debrief or supervision. We go through what we go through together. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be married to someone not in the work.
    It’s true that this work can be incredibly stressful. As A Celeb pointed out, some people’s lives are filled with misery and can be more depressing than the circumstance of the actual death.
    Yes, there is a lot of affirmation that can become very morrish, but the truth is you get so much more than you put in. The emotional benefits to this job don’t just lie in the thanks, they are in the reflections and insights you receive into your own life, the wisdom and innate goodness of ordinary people, the happiness on meeting someone whose spouse you buried five years before and finding they have a new partner and a happy life, the realisation that communities are strong and supportive, not to mention the complete absence of bullshit that comes with death. What’s not to like?

    1. Charles

      What he said!
      No, seriously, actually, what he said, all of it!
      I often think that what stands between Keith and I and the need for professional help is each other…it really does make a difference. The other thing that helps is meeting the families we have worked with months, sometimes years later and finding out that we really did make a difference.
      I’ve done a few things in my time (still am, actually) this is the first time I’ve been absolutely, totally certain that this is what I want to do.

  6. Charles

    It’s a tricky subject and I am not sure I can reply totally honestly, but here goes.

    Our daily business must have some impact on us, our thoughts and feelings, we are just inadequate humans. I think that most people choose not to think about death at all, they fear it and I suspect believe it too big a subject to tackle. How do any of us feel when we contemplate how we might feel learning of the death of our grandparents, Mum and Dad, siblings, even children? Answer, the same as anyone else, it’s horrid, we don’t want to think about it. Aged 50, I have lived long enough to have lost brothers, grandparents and people I loved deeply. I don’t personally fear death at all, but the thought of losing those I care about sure scares the s**t out of me! Because I deal with death, every 50 year old man who comes to arrange his fathers funeral, is a little bit like me and that does have an impact.

    Life is shorter than we think, live for today and all that, but how many of us really can or do? We plod on, making the best of things, we live in hope. I would say as I have aged, that for the first time in my career I would consider talking about my feelings and experiences. The stuff that caused the scars. Much of what we do is routine, we can cope with it – but a lot of it is far from that. I reckon undertakers have probably put on a brave face for far too long – it’s time for the NAFD or SAIF to introduce some discussion on the subject – even a programme, why not do something really useful for the dismal trade?

  7. Charles

    Sorry I’m slow to respond. Great stuff as ever Chas.

    Absolutely. I’ve just done a bit of training with Green Fuse and Angie from Red Plait and that was the top question on my list. Having trained in Counselling Skills we were always taught not to do anything without supervision – checking out what’s going on for you. You can’t safely handle other people’s ‘stuff’ if you don’t deal with your own. Got to keep yourself safe.

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