In the traditionally male-dominated profession of funeral directing, it’s unusual to see a team led almost exclusively by women; but Neville Funerals in Leagrave, Luton is doing just that.
Melissa Hamblin, Operations Supervisor; Kerry Dear, Mortuary Supervisor; Lucy Brennan, Embalmer and Joanne Jago, Trainee Embalmer form part of a national trend that is seeing more and more women joining the sector and working their way to the top.
Melissa knew from a young age she wanted to work in the funeral profession. She said: “Even as a teenager I knew I wanted to work in the funeral industry as I wanted to be able to help people at the most difficult time in their life. I joined Neville Funerals as a driver bearer just over three years ago. It was my very first position within the profession and at that time I was the only female working in that role. It was daunting to begin with but I think you know very quickly if this profession is right for you and I certainly did.
“Some people were surprised when I would arrive at their house to bring their loved one into our care, but mainly because they thought I wouldn’t be physically capable of carrying someone. It was never an issue though.
“When the opportunity came up for Operations Supervisor I went for it. I love a challenge and I’m very organised; so coupled with my experience as a driver bearer it seemed a great fit. My role now is more behind the scenes than dealing directly with families. I manage the diary bookings, liaise with the branches, oversee fleet services and generally make sure the different teams are all working together.
“We manage anything from 10 to 20 funerals per day so teamwork and communication is key. We only get the one chance to make sure we celebrate the life of a loved one to the highest standard. We are all equally involved in ensuring the quality of our service and I’m immensely proud of what we deliver for families.
Like Melissa, Kerry had always wanted to join the funeral profession. She was working as a support manager for a dentist surgery, but she continued to pursue her dream and eventually joined Neville Funerals in 2015. She successfully completed her NAFD Funeral Arranger Diploma and made the move to Mortuary Supervisor earlier this year.
She said: “A key part of my new role is to co-ordinate with the branches and external agencies such as doctors, hospitals etc to ensure all the necessary processes and procedures run as smoothly and efficiently as possible. This may involve chasing for certificates, bringing people who have passed away in hospital into our care, arranging for families to bring in a loved one’s clothing and ensuring mortuary bookings are organised and run to time.
“It’s important that every member of the team knows what is going on to ensure the same standard of care and service across the whole business. I get a huge sense of satisfaction in my job. Knowing we’ve done a good job for someone means a great deal to the family but also to us as the people arranging and conducting the service. Most of us live where we work, so this is our community and we are there for them at the most difficult time in their lives.
Many of the women pursuing careers in the funeral business have come to realise that they are drawn to the skills needed for the career path, including compassion and a desire to comfort.
Whilst more women working in funerals may seem like a good fit, one role which often raises eyebrows is that of embalmer. Lucy left her job in banking, to join Neville Funerals as a Trainee Embalmer, seven years ago. She said: “When I tell people what I do for a living you get one of two reactions. They will either ask loads of questions or they’ll say ‘I don’t know how you do that’ and it’s the end of the conversation.
“Training to become an embalmer is quite intensive, involving five theory and three practical exams. There are a lot of misconceptions about embalming; some people think it’s just carrying out the actual embalming and others that it’s just doing hair and make-up on someone who has died. It’s actually about both of these things, and a whole lot more.
“My role is to care for the person from the moment they first enter the funeral home until the day they embark on their final journey. It’s the last time a family will see their loved one so you want to get it right and make sure they look their best.
“Families will often provide me with photographs of their loved ones so I can make sure I style their hair, paint their nails or create their makeup exactly as they would have had it when they were alive. Once dressed, and resting inside their coffin for families to visit, my role is to continue to check they remain looking their best.
“Some people might think what I do is depressing, or that you have to be cold or unfeeling to do the job, but it’s quite the opposite. It’s one of the most rewarding jobs that you could have, to have the honour of a family entrusting their loved one to you in their time of need. It’s important to me that families know I will make sure that whatever happens to the deceased happens with respect and dignity, and that I give them the same care and attention that they would if they were the ones caring for them.”
Joanne Jago, is one of Neville Funerals’ newest recruits. She joined the team in the summer as a driver bearer and within just six weeks was given the opportunity to train as an embalmer. She said: “I was working for the prison service but really wanted to get into the funeral profession, it was just a case of finding the right opportunity. I started as a driver bearer at Luton but the end goal was always to become an embalmer. I never dreamed that I’d be given the chance so quickly. I’m currently studying for my British Institute of Embalmers qualification. It normally takes three years but because I’m lucky enough to be able to study and learn on the job, I’m completing the course in 12 months.
“A lot of people are very surprised when I tell them what I do, especially when they know I’m only 29. There is a perception that the people who work in the funeral sector are all older men – I love that we are breaking that stereotype. The job is so fulfilling, you are providing a final service for someone and playing an important part in helping a family say goodbye to a loved one. I can’t imagine ever wanting to do anything else.”