A life among death

2013-01-23 00:00

ONE of the best things about working in the funeral business is that no two days are the same. Dallas Gilbert, who, with his wife, Natalie, owns Oakleigh Funeral Home, describes his work as a vocation.

“This is a service industry in the most absolute sense of the word, because you serve people who are in the midst of one of the most difficult and painful life experiences of all. They need you to give your best 24/7,” he says.

Gilbert says he is “a perfectionist, but one who has learnt not to get bent out of shape by things that don’t matter”. From the way he speaks about his work, it is clear that he is passionate about it — especially the pastoral aspect of caring for people who are grieving — and completely comfortable with what in many cultures are sensitive if not taboo subjects: death and the rituals around it. However, this was not always the case.

“I never thought about being a funeral director, never even knew this career existed. I didn’t actually know what happened to people when they died. I can see now that as a young person, I didn’t have great emotional and psychological depth.”

This changed when Gilbert went to boarding school, which he described as “a stabilising place where I experienced routine, discipline, people of faith and a lot of love”.

His early adult experiences continued to mould and equip him for his eventual vocation. During military training, he learnt the importance of teamwork, planning and logistics, and refined his self-discipline under the rigorous, demanding regime of the volunteer Parachute Battalion. “When you exit a plane backwards at night, there is a lot that can go wrong. You have only one chance to get it right, and it’s the same with being a funeral director,” he said.

A spell in the retail furniture industry working in rural areas served as valuable experience when Gilbert ended up returning to the same areas as an apprentice undertaker years later. He joined Doves, which had a monopoly of the KwaZulu-Natal market at the time. Starting out in an entry-level position meant that he swept floors, washed bodies and cleaned vehicles. As a result, he knows the industry from the bottom up.

“It was the time of faction fighting in the townships. Edendale was like a war zone at times, with more people killed there in a weekend than in the Iraqi war. From being someone almost in denial about death, I became the one who collected bodies and prepared people for burial.”

Through all this, Gilbert said: “I had a sense of peace, loved what I was doing and knew it was the right thing.” He moved up through the ranks, taking on more and more responsibility, and gaining valuable experience. He came under the wing of Jimmy Dove, a legend in the industry. “He was a tyrannical boss, very demanding and difficult, but I learnt so much from him. He set standards of professionalism and excellence that I have tried to emulate, not only in the way we do the job, but also in the way we handle clients: with sensitivity and the utmost care, no matter who they are.”

By now “relaxed about death and dying”, and equipped with broad experience, the opportunity came to open his own business in 1998. He used his experience to “create a business with sound systems”. Oakleigh now also has branches in Howick, Pinetown and Hillcrest, and employs 30 people.

In an industry that is not regulated and periodically creates horror headlines about bodies stacked in sheds and grieving families being ripped off, Gilbert prides himself on the way the technical side of his business runs, and the quality of customer care it offers. Staff must undergo an intensive in-house training programme.

Procedures are documented, tracked and double-checked, all the way from picking up a body to his or her burial or cremation. “We have a very regimented way of doing things, including a very strict identification protocol. One of the five most common mistakes is the wrong identification of a deceased. We use plastic identity bracelets like those that hospitals use. This is to prevent the recurrence of one of the biggest errors of my career: cremating the wrong person,” Gilbert explained.

Asked whether there is a lighter side to being a funeral director, Gilbert said only in retrospect, as humorous events are not at all funny at the time. “For example, the chaplain at Grey’s Hospital once fell into an empty grave because it was covered by a piece of artificial grass. Incense has also created funny incidents like the time Natalie had an allergic reaction to it that made her weep copiously. A Catholic priest also once insisted on going in the hearse with the incense burner going. There was so much incense in the hearse, the driver struggled to concentrate.”

Probed for examples of mistakes made, Gilbert mentioned an instance when they buried someone without a death certificate and had to exhume the body. “Another time we lost a set of ashes. It was found years later in a cupboard at the church where the service was held. That’s why I’m so pedantic about systems — to make sure we never do these kinds of things again, because our mistakes affect the people we are serving,” he said.

Although now the co-owner of the business, Gilbert likes to keep his hand in by taking a turn at doing everything involved, without letting on that he is one of the owners. “I find great joy in helping people and it helps me keep a balanced perspective on life,” he said. He recounted an instance when he went to a funeral as part of the two-man team and ended up sweeping the church steps. “It was a wet and muddy day, and people were tracking mud onto the carpets, so the minister asked me to sweep, which I did. He had no idea I was the business owner,” Gilbert laughed.

THESE are the people who fetch the dead in a hearse and prepare them for burial or cremation. They also drive the bodies to a funeral and take care of arrangements there. Technical staff are largely men, as there is a fair amount of after-hours work and heavy physical activity involved, such as lifting and carrying bodies and coffins. To do this job also requires the capacity to be comfortable with human physiology. “They drain the body fluids and people can sometimes be badly injured, so there can be a lot of blood. I have been on ARVs twice and have a staff member currently taking them too,” Gilbert said. He confirmed the popular truth that pacemakers have to be removed if a dead person is to be cremated, as they explode when exposed to heat, potentially damaging the cremator and endangering staff.

THESE are mostly women, who seem to have a particularly helpful and sensitive way with clients, Gilbert said. This type of client-liaison work requires pastoral skills similar to those of caring professions like ministers, psychologists, social workers and doctors. Gilbert himself is trained in grief counselling and how to help the bereaved.

GILBERT explained that public viewing, though common in the black community, is rare among white South Africans, apart from the German-speaking community. “In fact, there is a strong move away from any kind of funeral or cremation ritual at all. We see more and more wakes or celebrations of the life of the deceased that do not include the presence of the body or any kind of religious ritual at all.” He noted that cremation is forbidden to Orthodox Jews and Muslims. He believes it is important for grieving families or friends to hold some kind of ceremony to mark a death: “Even if it’s as simple as coming to sit quietly with the coffin for a while, it helps people grasp the reality of their loss and find closure,” he said.

Talking about children and funerals, he said his experience has taught him that it is healthy to allow them to attend as it aids the grieving process.

WITH the growing environmental movement, “green options” in coffins and ash containers are now available. Woven reed or Chinese sea grass coffins and ash holders are available. There are also paper containers for ashes, with indigenous seeds embedded in them. Gilbert explained that a traditional plain, chipboard coffin is actually very environmentally unfriendly. “Chipboard is treated with lots of chemicals, so whether it is buried in the ground or cremated, it creates lots of pollution, either in the ground or in the air. A greener option is pine, which is natural and burns cleanly if cremated. Cremation itself creates carbon emissions so is unfriendly too, but we have run out of grave sites because of poor planning. The most sustainable and “greenest” way to dispose of bodies is to bury them without a container, so they biodegrade naturally in the ground. Unfortunately, our society is not comfortable with this idea, so is not yet ready for that.”

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