Everyone starts a new job with some amount of trepidation. You wonder about the new things you'll learn, about what the people will be like, and how you'll fit into it all. The training, of course, is an important part of any new role and while you have an idea of what you’re in for, you often never really know until that first day.
“We put them through a series of dummy funerals if you like, to see how they manage.
As Gus Nichols, the director of Nichols Funeral Home, tells us about the in-house training his staff receive, it’s clear that your first day at work arranging funerals is certainly more different than most.
“You know pretty quick whether they can cut it or not.”
We are in a room upstairs in the offices of the Nichols Lombard Street premises in the city centre. It’s an office but feels more like a living room - cream walls, red carpet, mahogany furniture - it’s a house we’ve all been in. Gus goes on to tell us that the sympathetic use of language is a crucial part of training, with jargon and words like “remains” or “morgue”, unsurprisingly, to be avoided.
“We don't bring the remains back to the house for a wake, we bring your mum, we bring your brother. I suppose you are trying to put yourself in the situation of the person who has had a bereavement in a way.”
And it’s this, more than anything throughout our conversation, that resonates the most. It sums up the Nichols approach to funeral arranging. So it’s not surprising that language, how to speak to the bereaved, and the manner you adopt in what is a very delicate situation, is a fundamental part of the training given to new employees.
This also feeds into telephone etiquette which is another important aspect of the business. Staff cover the phones 24 hours a day, every day of the year. No answering machines have ever been used in the history of business and Gus remembers as a child how this spilled into family life.
“We had to be very careful at home with the phone because it would ring at all sorts of funny times with people looking for my dad, Edward.”
Edward became the fifth-generation director of the company after the sudden death of his own dad, Dick, in 1953. He stepped into the demanding role at the age of 21. Founded in 1814 by Joseph Nichols, the business started out as livery stables in Dublin city centre. Providing horses for funerals and undertaking became part of their remit, and eventually became the sole function of the business. Edward likely wouldn't have chosen the career had the circumstances been different.
“He didn't like it but he'd get on with it and he was respected for it.”
Gus describes a sociable man, with a gift for remembering faces and names, which was useful for the business.
In the 1970s Nichols merged to become part of the Fanagans group, which now has four companies under its banner, with each retaining their own familial heritage. When Edward died suddenly in 1996, a 25-year old Gus came on board to take over Nichols, after some coaxing from Alan Fanagan, the then Managing Director of Fanagans.
By that time in his life, Gus had graduated from university and spent time living abroad in Hong Kong and London. Without him ever saying it, you get the sense that Gus too, may never have ventured toward the family business if circumstances hadn't brought it to him.
When we meet him at the funeral home, he is warm, welcoming, even enthusiastic. For a man who deals with death every day, he instead has an air of someone who has stepped away from some leisurely outdoor pursuit, maybe golf, that has given him a glow before donning his suit. He makes fun of himself when he talks about “providing solutions”, saying he sounds like a contestant on The Apprentice. Later, he rolls his eyes but laughs as he tells us that when one of the local football teams the Fanagan group sponsors won a game, a newspaper printed that the team “buried” the competition. He’s like that uncle who always asks how you’re doing when he sees you, or the brother in-law you actually like to spend time with.
Nonetheless, he doesn't shy away from the inherent challenges of a business that assists people during the most difficult days of their lives, and what it means to confront that on a day-to-day basis. About a month or two into the job, two friends of his both lost children in the same week.
“I said this really isn't for me and it knocked the stuffing out of me.”
Two years later a friend, a 24-year-old woman, died from cancer, which was another instance he found particularly hard.
“So I nearly left on about four or five occasions.”
Alongside the work of assisting the bereaved family, Gus describes the business essentially as one of event planning. Across the group, they manage on average eight funerals a day.
In contrast to a wedding or any other occasion that marks a major life event, there is no chance to rehearse and crucially, there is no other occasion where a mistake has the potential to be more devastating than at a funeral. To ensure everything runs smoothly on the day requires an inordinate amount of pre-planning.
“We are relying on third parties whether its singers, organists, priests, clergymen, humanist celebrants, civil celebrants, nurses, staff at hospitals, gravediggers, crematorium, florists, media companies, death notices and papers online.”
On the day itself, the funeral arrangers must adopt a rigorous approach and ensure impeccable timing throughout.
“Each funeral needs about 50 to 60 things on average to happen perfectly.”
The pressure this brings must be immense but Gus seems to thrive on the organisational and logistical side of the work.
“There is a satisfaction to doing the job well, it's very sociable, it's very varied. You get to see all sorts of funny places, I know you are going to laugh, but it's actually quite rapid, you've got to make decisions quickly, it's quite exciting.”
“It is also satisfying to get feedback from people to say they were pleased with how it went.”
It's strange to consider the funeral business as a sociable one, but as Gus talks about the day-to-day workings of it, it's clear that it is. Undertakers gain an insight into family life, into grief, and how we manage it on a very personal scale. They see the rituals from all different denominations of people and how they change through the years according to what society expects.
One such aspect that has changed is the removal, which used to be an integral part of the Christian funeral in the city.
Gus asserts, “It was invented in Dublin by Jacobs and the other big employers [who] were fed up with people leaving work in the morning [to attend funerals].”
Now he estimates that probably one in ten funerals opt to have a removal.
“I think mainly because people don’t want the public performance twice.”
Forty percent of the funerals they do are now cremations, which is also a huge shift from previous years. While Christian funerals have always been a core part of their work, Nichols has always catered for a range of denominations through the years from their city centre location.
“Traditionally about sixty percent of the Nichols work was all the local funerals here so Westland Row, City Quay, Ringsend, Sandymount, Haddington Road would be our five main parishes.”
The Nichols family traditionally was Quaker and Church of Ireland and they have arranged funerals for faiths from Catholic to Protestant, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Brethren, Plymouth Brethren, and Bahai among others.
Choice of coffins has changed too, with people often opting for more environmentally friendly options such as wicker, willow, water hyacinth, or different types of reed. Gus dryly notes however, that this is more for aesthetic reasons than people worrying about their carbon footprint.
The employees that have prospered in the business in the last few years tend to be older, with some life experience behind them, and come from a range of career backgrounds. Empathy is important but Gus emphasizes that in a similar way to a doctor or a nurse, the person must have the ability to remain professional at all times, and exude a certain confidence.
“We have one guy who was a travel agent, he had his own business and he is brilliant. He just has that presence which is great.”
Gus could also be describing himself.
But what is a stereotypical undertaker anyway? Juvenile notions from childhood tend to linger of dour faced harbingers of darkness, but of course the reality is very different. The work of a funeral arranger is multi-faceted job which brings with it incredible responsibility. It asks employees to self-assured yet sympathetic, and personable yet professional at all times. All of which would make for a resilient individual who does a challenging, unusual job. Trustworthiness, too, is an important quality for families who need the services of a funeral home.
“They are handing over this very important office to someone like me so they need to feel reassured.”
Written by Sinead Fox © 2016
Photos by Adam O'Keeffe © 2016