Near Death Experience – Spotlight on: Lauren Hardgrove
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 shouldn’t be afraid to talk about death.
What do you do?
Essentially I’m 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. They’re 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 we’re 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 it’s that team’s 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 they’re buried, the direction they’re facing – it’s that team’s 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 there’s 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 isn’t just a job. You don’t come to work, start at eight in the morning and then walk out the door at five o’clock. There is a lot of emotion involved in this role. And if you’re not here to benefit of our clients it’s certainly something you couldn’t do on a day to day basis.
What’s a typical day for you?
Generally I’ll arrive at work and I’ll look at what services we have for the day. I’ll check in with our cemetery service team to make sure everything is running smoothly for our funeral services. They’ll let me know if we’re having any issues out in the field – for example, if it’s raining it can cause a lot of problems, particularly when you’re digging the ground up. I’ll check in with our client service staff to see if they’re coping ok. If they’ve got any difficult family situations that we need to address. And then I could be working on a multitude of projects, depending what we’re doing. So at the moment we’re working on Macarthur Memorial Park (a new cemetery being built in Western Sydney). So there are a lot of strategic things we’re looking at from a marketing point of view – what communities do we need to allocate to out there? So it’s 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. They’ll collect details about the person that’s passed away- e.g. names, dates, that sort of thing. They’ll let us know whether it’s 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, we’ll send our burial services team out to inspect the grave, to check that there’s not going to be any problem on the day, that there’s not some monument that needs to be moved before the internment. They’ll 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 it’s the right grave, that it’s the right field, the right number. They’ll drop off all their equipment at each site and then they work in a team of two where they’ll actually take the machinery down, starting digging the grave via backhoe or excavators.
There’s a number of things that could happen. It could be what we call a pre-owned grave, where there’s 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 they’ll dig the grave to the required depth. They’ll set up canopy chairs, water, holy water at the grave site and then they’ll 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, that’s when our staff will come back in and start to backfill the grave. That’s pretty much the process.
What’s a challenging day?
A challenging day for us is probably one in which we have multiple funerals, and when I’m saying multiple I’m not talking about one or two, I’m talking about 20.
Often funerals will all come at the same time. So if they have a church service in the morning, 10 o’clock 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 don’t 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 it’s torrential rain, that hinders our ability to dig graves. It causes problems with the ground being unstable and we have what we call ‘collapse’ which is where a grave actually falls in on itself. And then they’ve 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 I’m aware of. But we have to delay sometimes, generally it takes about half an hour because we’ve got to make sure that it’s safe as well. It’s not just about ensuring the person is laid to rest it’s about the 50 or 100 people who are there that they’re 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, it’s 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 that’s 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. They’ve got targets to meet. I’ve 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?’ They’ve 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 it’s 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 that’s looking for a cremation. I think it’s an industry a lot of people don’t know anything about until the last minute and then they’re confronted with all these different options and they’ve got make a decision in a very short time. Everybody’s different. Everybody’s needs are different. Everybody’s expectations are different. And we’ve 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 you’ve had a conversation, you know what people want or don’t want. It just makes that transition at the end of life a lot easier. If somebody’s had a conversation and said ‘I don’t want to be cremated, I want to be buried’ or vice versa, it’s a lot easier for the people that are left behind to make a decision.
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 attendance” which is where the family may have a church service or a service at a funeral director’s facility, for example, and then the body is sent to the crematorium for cremation and the family doesn’t attend. And one of the things that we find with that is that people choose that because it’s the cheaper option but down the track, if they’re not collecting the cremated remains, if they’re not interring them, often years later people go “what happened? Where is my mum? Where is my dad?”. And there’s 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 don’t actually know what happened to their parents, years later, and they’ve still got a lot of grief associated with that because there wasn’t 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. It’s 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 person’s 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 they’re comfortable. You know, we have baptisms, we have confirmations, these are all markers of our life, I guess, and it’s 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 they’re confronted with a lot of things that many of the general public aren’t. But they get to go home at the end of the day and think: ‘I made a difference to somebody’s life. It doesn’t 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 you’re a person who can help people through a really difficult time, certainly investigate whether it’s something that you’d really like to do.