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Specialized ProfessionI organise funerals for people without any family, AMA!

Dec 10th 2016 by rpg_wodehouse • 16 Questions • 794 Points

My short bio: I'm 33, live and work in a city in the UK where I organise funerals for people who have passed away in the area without any known family. I conduct searches of their property to find a will/funeral plan/details or family or friends/financial details/items of sentimental value.

I'll be coming back to this thread over the next day or so, or as long as people are interested, so feel free to keep the questions coming.

My Proof: I do not wish to compromise the right to privacy of any of the people involved in these cases. I have submitted proof confidentially to the mods of this forum.

Q:

•What was the saddest thing you've learned about someone?

•What was the time you most felt like a detective (which, thinking about it, you kind of are) while trying to do your work?

•What was the most mysterious person you've "seen" (given you don't see them, you see their things and whatnots) in your job?

Edit: Also, my curiosity got the best of me. Forgot to thank you for doing this amazing AMA. Cheers mate

A:

There are so many sad stories, I can't say any one of them is the saddest, but one that occurs to me now is from my very first case. It was a man in his 50s/60s IIRC, lived in complete squalor and had been dead for a week or two before he was found (the neighbours noticed a smell...). We knew that he had a mother from a friend of the deceased, but they were estranged, and she was probably dead anyway. When I visit a property I will always look through their unopened mail, and on this occasion I found an unopened letter from the man's mum. It was several pages long and she wrote about her sadness that they had lost touch, that she was sorry for everything that had gone one, that all she wanted to do was reunite with her son before she died. She had got his address though someone she knew who still lived in the area, I believe. She said she thought of him every day. And that letter was on the doormat, unopened, the man had died before being able to open it. That was heartbreaking. And as it was my first case I was completely unsure of this was something I could do. And then you get used to it, I guess.

The 'detective' element of the work is the most fun, although it usually only extends to searching through address books/mobile phones, putting out ads in newspapers, or speaking to neighbours/friends of the deceased. I've already mentioned the case with the school photo in another thread, that was pretty satisfying. There was another case there we knew there were family abroad, but attempts by both the UK police and the police in the country the family were believed to be located were unsuccessful. I eventually came into contact with lots of paperwork the deceased had, and on the back of a scrap of paper, in box full of other papers I found an email address. I sent an email and it turned out to be for the brother of the deceased. He wasn't able to travel for the funeral but a few months later he came to England to collect the ashes and returned them to the native home of the deceased. Another case of the best possible outcome, given the circumstances.

And the most mysterious has to be the man that lived under his brother's assumed identity. I've covered that in a different post, so I won't repeat it here, but that was a case that probably only come up once in two decades.


Q:

When you discover a secret that the deceased meant to keep hidden, do you share that knowledge with anyone? Or do you assist in helping that secret do with them?

A:

It will depend on the circumstances. If telling someone will help locate family then I will tell people, but generally speaking you have to be very discreet. I've encountered quite a few men who were presumably gay based on their porn collections, but whose friends thought were straight. No point in outing them after death if that wasn't what they wanted.


Q:

Not OP but if the person had a Will, it should form part of their estate and be distributed according to the Will. If there is no Will found, the estate should be distributed according to the intestate laws of where the deceased was living, which usually goes to closest family members first (another reason to look for family members of the deceased).

A:

Couldn't have said it better.


Q:

You ever have a funeral where no one was able to show up? Or any crazy/ridiculous funeral stories

A:

Nobody in attendance isn't that uncommon, although most funerals there is someone who knows the deceased thankfully. But where there is no-one, there is still a service held with as much information as I can provide used (for example, if there are pictures of racing cars all over the walls then that will get mentioned, or if they loved Barry Manilow we would play some of his music during the service). The funeral director and one of our attendants, or sometimes myself, will attend in funerals where there are no friends able to attend, so nobody ever goes completely alone, but there might only be strangers to the deceased there.

As for crazy stories, there have been lots of times where the friends that come are addicts like the deceased. The funerals are always early in the morning, but that doesn't stop them drinking/smoking/shooting up ahead of the service. One of the people we use to conduct the services is an ex-policeman and he has had to stop people from shooting up right in the middle of a service before. Oh, and fights too, you get fights sometimes with those types of funeral.


Q:

Since no one has asked yet, what exactly do you do with the information you discover? Like, pass it on to a funeral administrator or something so that they can deliver a more personalized eulogy? How do you determine which type of service to hold (religiously speaking)?

A:

The big thing is dignity and respect, regardless of whether the deceased had family or not. Even if nobody attends, a service is always held, with either a religious minister or non-religious celebrant depending on what we discover about the deceased. I will always be looking out for details that can be used in the service - so for example, if the person has pictures of racing cars on their walls, or if they have a collection of Barry Manilow albums, or have a passage in the bible marked. Any and all of it can be used. Thankfully there are relatively few services where there is nobody there, usually there will be a neighbour or two if nothing else. Given the chance, us humans are an amazing compassionate lot.


Q:

If I want to enter into this career path, what kind of qualifications do I need? And do I need connection with the government bodies to open up a company that specialize in handling this specialized jobs?

A:

It depends which country you are in. I can't advise on the US, but in the UK you would need to contact your local council and find out which dept deals with it and then find out what qualifications are required. In some places they only deal with a small handful every year, so it isn't a full time job everywhere. But if you are in a big city, chances are there's someone doing the same job as I do.


Q:

What would you say the best/greatest life lesson you've learned has been? What do you value or appreciate more now?

A:

Well, without wishing to sound cheesy, it is that everyone is unique. Their uniqueness may not always be good, and it may not always be obvious to others, but that each and every person on the planet is different in some small way, and we should recognise and celebrate that fact.


Q:

You just described my old man. He lived across the country so we had an arrangement to talk every Sunday. When he didn't answer by Monday I called the police. He'd been dead for days by that point.

One of the kindest things he ever did for me was prepare a will and organize his own funeral. Everything was taken care of by the time I got to his house.

Unfortunately, he had been so ill in his last days that his house was in the condition you've mentioned before - shit in plastic bags, food out, unopened mail, vomit and flies everywhere. And of course the body excretes stuff. Damn.

But please know, the way people die isn't necessarily how they live. He was a clean, intelligent, vibrant soul.

Thank you for what you do. I'm going to see what kind of services my town has for people who are alone in death. Maybe I can help too.

A:

Thank you for your story. For what it's worth, I never ever judge the people I deal with. I'm always aware that people lives don't happen in a vacuum and often it is circumstances beyond their control that place them in a certain situation. That's one thing my job has taught me more than anything else, empathy for others.


Q:

What kind of education path did you take?

How much do you make? (considering emotional damage that might come with the job)

Are you content with your job as a career?

A:

I have a Master's Degree but in an arts subject, nothing to do with my job. I was lucky because I did a lower level job in the same office, but proved myself as a good employee, which is why my manager was happy for me to take this job on.

In terms of being content, I don't think I could do this forever. It is fascinating, but there is something about dealing with nothing but death all day that inevitably grinds your soul a bit. So I think I will look for different work at some point in the future, preferably away from the death industry altogether. I'll still have my stories though...


Q:

What are some of the perks? Can you take stuff home? Meet cool people?

A:

You can't take stuff home, but you do get to travel around quite a lot. I go to hospitals and police stations, plus visiting the properties themselves, so I'm not chained to a desk all day. I also get on really well with the people I deal with regularly, and I'm always meeting new people (eg the friends of the deceased).


Q:

How often do you find a will?

Do you ever discover someone has a large network of friends and family they've just somewhat recently (a few years) fallen out of touch with, or does everyone have only a few connections?

What kind of responses do you get from the people you contact? Are they ever angry for being contacted?

A:

Wills aren't that common, maybe one case in every twenty, at a guess. You are always looking for one, but the reality is that without someone pushing you it is easy to put it off.

In terms of the responses I get, sometimes anger, sometimes relief, often sadness. It depends on what kind of relationship that person had with the deceased, and how it had been left. Estranged children for example are often very torn, partly glad that their hated parent has died, and partly grief stricken that things ended as they did. I suspect that there is a part of all people in those situations that imagine that the relationship will be mended one day. It must be hard to know that the door is closed forever on that possibility.


Q:

Is your job in any way particularly difficult?

A:

It isn't difficult, you just have to be thorough. You can't cut corners or try to do things quickly, you need to be methodical and organised. And above all, you need to care about the work - there is no punishment for me if I miss something during one of my searches, but it weighs on your conscience if you feel that you could have done your job better.


Q:

Can I write a short story based on your experiences?

A:

If you like.


Q:

What is your job title? Never heard of this job

A:

In the UK it is either called a Bereavement Services Officer or Environmental Health Officer.


Q:

How many funerals have you attended and have you become jaded towards them? Have they become just a normal thing?

A:

You can become a little jaded towards death in general, and funerals can sometimes seem a little comical almost. But I think anyone in the death industry will tell you that. Like anything, if you do it often enough it becomes mundane. There is definitely a black sense of humour amongst people in my job and funeral directors. Same goes for paramedics and firemen I expect, it's part coping mechanism, and partly from the 'everyday-ness' of it all.


Q:

How do you get paid? Who pays you?

A:

I'm a city council employee, so the local government body.