Often we get asked, ‘how do you get into the business of being a mortician’.
It seems many of you out there, already drawn to content like ours that discusses death, death-care and mortuary work, have identified this as a career you might like to pursue.
Writing this as an outsider looking In (Trish here, not Tracy), I reckon I can pinpoint the one trait that is a non-negotiable in this industry. It’s not a strong stomach, although having one would be helpful along the way, nor is it a vast knowledge of anatomy, fancy stitching techniques, or even a lack of fear of the dead.
No, my friends, the one thing you will most definitely need to succeed in this industry, to manage its very particular stresses and actually enjoy your work, is empathy. Empathy for the families, empathy for the deceased, empathy for your colleagues and empathy for all of those non-death-literate souls around you who won’t want to hear about what you did at work today when sitting around the fire pit with a glass of red at the neighbours’ on a Friday night.
It is empathy that will get you through when the most horrific things come across your table, when you see the very worst of what humans can do to each other, when you’re preparing a newborn for her mother’s last cuddle or when you are cleaning up blood, poo, vomit, wee and stomach contents. Most people don’t do this job because it’s fun, or creepy or odd. And if you’re chasing a big pay packet it’s probably not for you either.
They do it because they care. Because by seeing the worst, by cleaning up the mess and making things ‘all better’ they might just ease the burden of suffering for a grieving family.
Empathy too is important when dealing with the deceased to ensure respect and dignity are maintained at all times. There is no room for judgement in the mortuary - and it’s not all little old dears from the nursing home you’ll be caring for - 14-year-old suicides, 30-something drug addicts, people who kill their kids, then kill themselves - you don’t get to pick and choose your clients in this job, but you are expected to care for them all, in the same way you would for a young mum who dies of breast cancer or the teens in a horrific car crash.
It is empathy that will get you through. It will guide you when you are gagging over a decomposed body, when you are smashing through the organs with a trocar, when you are draining the blood from a lifeless 6-year-old during an embalm. It’s dirty, smelly, hands-on work, but a strong stomach will only get you so far and when you're getting out of bed on a Monday morning and facing the week ahead, you’re going to want a good reason to be doing what you do.
There are many jobs where you can help people - any number of medical, allied health, teaching, government, welfare or hospitality jobs. But not many where you might be up to your elbows in viscera one day and reattaching a head the next.
It’s the empathy that ensures only the ‘right’ kind of people pursue a career in the mortuary. Caring, kind, respectful people - people you would happily hand your mother or daughter over to. It’s not an easy job to get into - in Australia there is no mortuary course - you learn on the job, usually after proving yourself as a funeral arranger or assistant. You can study to be an embalmer, but you’ll need a mentor and somewhere to work, so without a foot firmly in the door of a funeral home, it’s a difficult task.
You may also need support from time to time - compartmentalising the things you see and have to do will only work as a coping mechanism for so long. Counselling is usually on offer in this job - make sure you make use of it when needed.
The other thing you should know before signing up, is that this job will change you, or at least it should, if you are paying attention. Dealing with death every single day makes it pretty hard to take life for granted. You never know when it might be you, or someone you love on that table. And when that time comes, (a ‘when’, not an ‘if’), wouldn’t it be nice to know the death-care staff taking care of things were also motivated by empathy?