Friday, August 19, 2011

Funeral job leads to life-long career

Daniel Sales is the manager of Waikumete Cemetery. The 45-year-old lives in Waitakere with his wife Jayne and their two children. He speaks to reporter Stephen Forbes.

I moved to New Zealand from the United Kingdom in 2003 and started working at Waikumete Cemetery two years later.

It is the biggest graveyard in the country, spanning 108 hectares.

My day can include everything from organising a memorial service for a historic event to arranging a burial or dealing with the media.

I first started working as an apprentice funeral director in Nottingham, England, when I was 16 years old.

I got into the industry after going to speak to a careers adviser at school. She asked me what I wanted to do and I didn't fancy getting into the trades. She said: "Look, it's a little bit out of left field but have you considered being an undertaker?"

There was a vacancy and I decided to give it a go.

My training included everything from grave digging and removing the deceased from the scene of an accident to dealing with a coroner and arranging and conducting a funeral.

It's quite weird because none of my family worked in the industry. Often you've got someone whose father was a grave digger and they've passed it on. But my father was a electrician and my mother was a midwife.

In my role as manager at Waikumete I usually start work at about 7.30am. The first thing I do is match up our running sheets, which set out the staff's tasks for that day.

If the sexton Tim Mason isn't available I meet with the burial and cremation teams to make sure there haven't been any changes to services planned for that day.

After that I answer any correspondence that's waiting. It might be someone inquiring about their plot lease expiring or a media inquiry about an upcoming memorial service.

Throughout the day I also meet with the various contractors we work with to discuss what they are working on, such as repairing gravestones around the cemetery.

It's a very hands-on job and it's the variety I like. Every day is different. Sometimes when we're busy I have to put on a high visibility vest and take part in a burial or cremation. I might have to help dig a grave, but it doesn't happen very often.

I usually finish at about 5pm. But it really is a 24/7 operation and I'm responsible for anything that happens in the cemetery. I have my phone with me at all times in case there is an emergency.
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In November last year 96 headstones were smashed beyond repair by vandals and I had to work with the police on that.

My job also involves dealing with families of the deceased. Assisting someone with a funeral is quite special. It could involve anything from selling them a burial plot to helping with a genealogy search.

But it comes with its stresses. Sometimes you might struggle to meet the needs of a family because of time constraints.

But we try to find the right balance. The industry is changing all the time and we have to deliver what families want and offer them choices. Families are a lot more involved in funeral services nowadays than they used to be.

In the years since I've been here the team has put Waikumete Cemetery back on the map. It's the jewel in the crown of Waitakere.

- Western Leader Last updated 13:14 16/06/2011

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