Near Death Experience - Spotlight on: Lauren Hardgrove

Near Death Experience – Spotlight on: Lauren Hardgrove

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This Spring, Lauren Hardgrove steps into our spotlight.  Lauren is director of client services at Catholic cemeteries and crematorium, based at Rookwood.  She takes us behind the scenes of these very special services and shines light on the very special people providing them.  Lauren also warns of a worrying trend, and explains why we shouldnt be afraid to talk about death.  

What do you do?

Essentially Im responsible for the operations of all our cemeteries. This  includes our front of house staff – for example, our clients services staff who meet with customers coming in to either repurchase a site or look at their options, or families that have recently lost someone.  I also look after the cemetery service staff. Theyre the team that actually digs graves, creates the landscape and looks after the cremations. Then we also have a bereavement service, so we have a team of people that offer grief counselling to families after, or, sometimes before, when were dealing with someone in palliative care. We also have a team that looks after community relations as  we  often find with burials, communities like to be buried together. For example,  we have a very strong ethnic following from the Maronite community, the Chaldean community, the Croatian community, all of which like to be buried together. And its that teams responsibility to reach the leaders of the community and find out what they want.  (For example) is there a particular saint who is a patron saint of a community, is that important to them; the way that theyre buried, the direction theyre facing – its that teams responsibility to find that information out and then we develop burial fields in accordance with the requirements of the community.

Does it take a certain kind of person to work in this field?

I think it takes all types of people.  Certainly for the team that works in cemetery services who are actually digging the grave and out there witnessing the funerals it can be incredibly emotionally taxing.  Death is very confronting. We hear terrible stories of people that have no family and theres nobody there. And then we are also faced with the death of children, which is very upsetting. I think you need to be a person who has a great deal of empathy.  This isnt just a job. You dont come to work, start at eight in the morning and then walk out the door at five oclock.  There is a lot of emotion involved in this role.  And if youre not here to  benefit of our clients its certainly something you couldnt do on  a day to day basis.

Lauren Seated 1

What’s a typical day for you?

Generally Ill arrive at work and Ill look at what services we have for the day.  Ill check in with our cemetery service team to make sure everything is running smoothly for our funeral services. Theyll let me know if were having any issues out in the field – for example, if its raining it can cause a lot of problems, particularly when youre digging the ground up.  Ill check in with our client service staff to see if theyre coping ok.  If theyve got any difficult family situations that we need to address.  And then I could be working on a multitude of projects, depending what were doing. So at the moment were working on Macarthur Memorial Park (a new cemetery being built in Western Sydney). So there are a lot of strategic things were looking at from a marketing point of view – what communities do we need to allocate to out there? So its very different on a day to day basis.

What’s the process of a burial?

So generally our staff will get contacted by a funeral director with a booking for either an internment or a cremation.  Theyll collect details about the person thats passed away- e.g. names, dates, that sort of thing. Theyll let us know whether its a cremation or a burial.  With a cremation – we  pretty much work day to day.  With a burial we then look at whether the family has an existing burial plot.  Do they need to come in and meet with somebody here so that we can show them the options?   Before the burial, well send our burial services team out to inspect the grave, to check that theres not going to be any problem on the day, that theres not some monument that needs to be moved before the internment.  Theyll do all their checks and then the cemetery service staff start at about 6.30 in the morning. They go out, they mark out all of the graves – double checking that its the right grave, that its the right field, the right number.  Theyll drop off all their equipment at each site and then they work in a team of two where theyll actually take the machinery down, starting digging the grave via backhoe or  excavators.  

Theres a number of things that could happen.  It could be what we call a pre-owned grave, where theres nobody interred in it, so in these cases, you are  actually looking at digging to a depth of 2.4 metres.  It could be a ‘re-open’ – so somebody has previously been interred, more often than not, a family member – and theyll dig the grave to the required depth. Theyll set up canopy chairs, water, holy water at the grave site and then theyll wait for the service to arrive.  So the service could be coming from an external church, they could be utilising one of our chapel facilities on site or they could just be having a service at the grave site. So the cortège will generally travel to the grave site and the diggers will meet the funeral directors and assist them over to the grave site where the coffin will be placed.  Then the priest will generally say a small service at the grave site and then the coffin will be lowered.  Once the family has finished that part of the service and moved on, thats when our staff will come back in and start to backfill the grave.  Thats pretty much the process.

Lauren Way of the Cross

What’s a challenging day?

A challenging day for us is probably one in which we have multiple funerals, and when Im saying multiple Im not talking about one or two, Im talking about 20.  

Often funerals will all come at the same time.  So if they have a church service in the morning, 10 oclock or 10.30, everyone comes at lunchtime.  So it can be really, really difficult to make sure that we are getting everybody to their grave site in an appropriate time and ensuring everything is working smoothly.  I guess the most challenging thing on a busy day is to make sure we dont have anybody off sick, which can be very challenging when you have a number of people on leave.  Weather plays a big role, so if we have 20 funerals and its torrential rain, that hinders our ability to dig graves.  It causes problems with the ground being unstable and we have what we call collapsewhich is where a grave actually falls in on itself. And then theyve got to get back out there and dig it again, ready for the burial to take place.

Have you ever had to cancel a funeral?

Not that Im aware of.  But we have to delay sometimes, generally it takes about half an hour because weve got to make sure that its safe as well.  Its not just about ensuring the person is laid to rest its about the 50 or 100 people who are there that theyre in a safe environment as well.  

What’s a good day?

A good day is when we know that all of the funerals that we have done have gone the best possible way and that the family will walk away really happy – and, this is hard to say, but they have a good memory of what actually happened at the burial. You only get one chance so we aim to make it perfect every time but sometimes with weather and things like that, its out of our control. But a good day is when the family leaves the site and they’re at peace.

How did you end up working in the cemeteries sector?

I had family connections that were in the business so when I was younger thats how I got into it.

Prior to working here I worked for a private company.

Have you noticed a difference working in a private company and working for a not-for-profit?

Most definitely.  The private company is very commercial.  They have shareholders, they need to make money. Theyve got targets to meet. Ive found working for a not-for-profit that the focus is on the families needs not on the business needs.  

How important is that to you?

Very. I think when people are at probably the worst point in their life, the last thing they want to be thinking about is Can I afford this?’  Theyve very, very vulnerable and you know, some unscrupulous people could take advantage of them.  Working for a company where the mission is to make sure that person has the best experience, even though its probably the worst time in their life – as opposed to making money – is a big issue for me.

Do you find people generally come with the same needs at a basic level, or do you find there is quite a variation as to what people are looking for in a service?

I think the community we service is very different. And they all have very different needs.  Most people have an understanding that you have a burial or you have a cremation.  But there are a lot of variables in between those options as well.  And it also depends on their background, their culture, their customs.  For example, the Italian community generally has a preference for above-ground burial, in a mausoleum or a crypt.  Which is a very very different option for somebody thats looking for a cremation.  I think its an industry a lot of people dont know anything about until the last minute and then theyre confronted with all these different options and theyve got make a decision in a very short time.  Everybodys different. Everybodys needs are different.  Everybodys expectations are different.  And weve got to service everybody.

Do you have any advice for people prior to needing a service?  

I think people are scared to talk about death.  Particularly with their family.  But it is a topic that people need to talk about if they can .  Any option to pre-plan is always good because youve had a conversation, you know what people want or dont want.  It just makes that transition at the end of life a lot easier.  If somebodys had a conversation and said I dont want to be cremated, I want to be buriedor vice versa, its a lot easier for the people that are left behind to make a decision.

CROSSSS

What are the challenges facing the industry?

The industry itself is changing. There is certainly a trend toward cremation as opposed to burial.  There is also a trend to something that we call no service, no attendancewhich is where the family may have a church service or a service at a funeral directors facility, for example, and then the body is sent to the crematorium for cremation and the family doesnt attend.  And one of the things that we find with that is that people choose that because its the cheaper option but down the track, if theyre not collecting the cremated remains, if theyre not interring them, often years later people go what happened?  Where is my mum? Where is my dad?.  And theres no place for them to go and grieve and visit.  So that is a concerning trend – we are coming across a lot of people who dont actually know what happened to their parents, years later, and theyve still got a lot of grief associated with that because there wasnt any closure.

How important is faith in this industry – for the people providing the service and those receiving the service?

Australia is very, very different.  Its very unique in terms of the  cultural and religious groups that we have here.  Certainly, being Catholic, at the Catholic crematoria, the Catholic faith is a big part of what we do.  The ritual of the requiem mass is a big part of what we do and it provides solace for those left behind.  People understand that transition through death.  There is a significant trend in the industry to move away from religious celebrations, so you see a lot more people utilising civil celebrants with the services, and there is a shift towards a celebration of a persons life as opposed to a ritual as part of a religious service.  But I still think that religion plays a significant part of that death process.  It allows people the opportunity to grieve in an environment in which theyre comfortable.  You know, we have baptisms, we have confirmations, these are all markers of our life, I guess, and its just a different way of marking the end of life.  

What do you get out of this job?

I guess the satisfaction at the end of the day is that what I do makes a difference to somebody’s life.  I think people that work in this industry are very, very special people, and theyre confronted with a lot of things that many of the general public arent. But they get to go home at the end of the day and think: I made a difference to somebodys life.  It doesnt matter how big or how small.  I helped somebody transition through a big, difficult time in their life.

What advice do you give to people thinking of joining the industry?

Go and visit a cemetery.  Talk to the staff.  It is a particular type of person that can do this job.  Not everyone can do it.  You have to have a very good sense of humour.  You have to have the ability to remain professional in some really emotional situations.  So, I guess if you want to help people and you feel that youre a person who can help people through a really difficult time, certainly investigate whether its something that youd really like to do.  

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