Carrying coffins and dressing the dead - an insider’s look into death care

A person in a coffin being cared for before burial.

Have you ever wondered who’s responsible for everything from driving hearses to collecting people who have died? Robert Black is one of Poppy’s incredible practical leads and he shares what it’s really like working in death care.

What does your job as one of Poppy’s practical leads involve?

My job involves caring for the dead and their loved ones, which can mean anything from collecting the person and taking them to Poppy’s to trimming a beard or brushing their hair.

We get them clean and shipshape, help with bearing a coffin and everything in-between.

We’ll also offer support to the family if we're doing a home collection and try to ensure that they’re okay during the process.

Can you walk me through what a typical day might look like?

The first thing we're going to do is clean the vehicles to make sure that they're sparkling, then it really depends on what we've got on. It could start with taking a person to the crematorium or collecting someone from the hospital and bringing them back to the mortuary. We could be going on a funeral with one of the funeral directors.

Quite often we'll be getting people ready as well, so that can involve getting them dressed and putting them in the coffin. At the moment, it’s slightly different because sometimes people with Coronavirus go straight in the coffins in body bags. That's pretty much what a day would entail.

How did you get started doing this job?

So my wife saw an advert! My consultancy wasn't too busy so I had some time on my hands. She suggested that instead of twiddling my thumbs, I could go out and do something different.

I ended up getting the job and when I told her what it actually entailed, she raised her eyebrows.

I think she assumed that it was just going to be carrying coffins as opposed to everything else as well.

Did working in the funeral sector faze you at all?

It didn't faze me, although I'll be honest with you, It's not a job I ever thought I'd be doing. I worked in media for over 25 years and it’s very much a service industry — it's about building relationships.

Funerals are the ultimate service industry because you're taking care of people when they're most in need. I think that's why Poppy’s is definitely different. It's about sitting down and asking ‘so what would you like?’ not being told ‘this is what we offer.’

How did you feel when you first started working with the dead?

I would be lying if I said it wasn't strange. On my first day proper, we collected the body of a baby. I've got a daughter and I found that hard, just thinking about everything the parents would’ve looked forward to throughout that pregnancy and then for that child and to be taken from them.


Robert Black
Robert Black

How do you cope with things like that?

It's a fact of life, everyone is going to die. I think that practicing mindfulness and taking care of your mental health is very important. It's good to have some coping mechanisms. For example, if you're sitting on a bench, whether that's in a cemetery or anywhere else, just reminding yourself to be grateful for the sunshine.

This work is not what most people do, but it's funny how quickly things become normalised. There's a truth in doing this that I don't think you'd get from anything else.

What makes this kind of work feel worthwhile to you?

There’s a sense of satisfaction in a job that’s done well. I was working on a funeral and carried the flowers back to the car with the husband of the lady who had died. He said, ‘look, you came and collected my wife the other day and I just want to thank you for everything that you've done.’ The appreciation of people that you've helped is really rewarding.

I've also been to some incredible funerals. It's really nice to see a celebration of people's lives and hear what they’ve done. You hear some of the eulogies and think, ‘wow, this person just sounds amazing.’

What do you have to keep in mind to do your job well?

You remember that the person you're collecting is a person. They were somebody’s mother, father, husband, wife, son or daughter. You treat them with respect and you do your job to the best of your ability. We have a lot of responsibility to do the right thing by the person who has died and their loved ones.

What have you learned from doing this job?

Let's enjoy life. Remember, we're here for only a short time and try to make the best of what we have.

Looking for more behind-the-scenes interviews? Don't miss what it's really like working in a mortuary and what a celebrant wants you to know during Covid-19.

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