The undertakers: ‘I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable with death’

Why would anybody choose to become a funeral director? We find out

Funeral directors Simon and Stuart Collier at their premises on Old Connaught Avenue, Bray, Co Wicklow. “You need an eye for it,” says Stuart of preparing the deceased for burial. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Funeral directors Simon and Stuart Collier at their premises on Old Connaught Avenue, Bray, Co Wicklow. “You need an eye for it,” says Stuart of preparing the deceased for burial. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

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“I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable with death. I don’t like to think about it, if I’m being honest.”

It’s not exactly what you’d expect to hear from a funeral director but Simon Collier (29) is speaking honestly.

His brother Stuart, 14-months older, is more at ease with the inevitability.

“My mortality doesn’t really bother me. In our work we see a lot of people who pass away far too young, so I just concentrate on living life to the full.”

The brothers are the next generation of funeral directors in the family business. “We’re like thunder and lightning,” jokes Stuart.

“As you can see, I’m more reserved while Simon is more – colourful.”

It’s all good-hearted banter and the brothers work side-by-side each day in a business that requires emotional strength and a veneer of calmness and solidity. But why did the two young men, who both went to college to study business, decide to follow in the footsteps of their father, Stephen, and his father before him?

Pocket money

“When we were 13, we used to earn pocket money by putting the handles on coffins and inserting the linings,” says Simon. “We grew up with the business. I flirted with accountancy as a career, but it wasn’t for me. I ended up managing a Centra store here in Bray and another in Ballybrack, for 10 years in all. Two years ago the opportunity arose here and I took it.”

Stuart decided, when just 21, to become a funeral director.

“I’d finished college, was in Vancouver for the year and was considering my options. I’ve always wanted to help people and have done so on aid projects in Uganda and Kosovo in the past. I really love what I do now because I can see how important it is to the families left behind.”

The brothers have become used to preparing the deceased.

“You need an eye for it,” says Stuart. “Preparing the body is a part of our day that’s very familiar to us. You treat it all with dignity and respect. Sometimes we ask for a recent photograph of the deceased, so we can make the person look like they were in life, so we apply the right shade of make up and so on. The presentation is often what people remember.”

To unwind, Stuart relishes the challenge of an indoor climbing wall. Or he will go to a gig, take a holiday or hang out with friends. He has recently taken up yoga.

Simon has just returned from a trip to India. Using holiday time to get some head space away from the day job is important, he says, and in his psychoanalyst fiancée, Nadia, he has the perfect sounding board.

‘Years of lifting’

Stephen, their father, comes in to rejuvenate the struggling peat fire. He is holding his hip. “Years of lifting,” he says, giving an insight into a hazard of the profession.

“Coffins used to be much heavier than they are now and when you’d go to collect the deceased. you’d often have to place them in it and carry them down flights of stairs and steps. Overtime that takes its toll.”

In Cavan, Colm Kieran (35), a funeral director and father of three, says there are now Irish Association of Funeral Directors (IAFD) courses that explain how lifting should be done and provide information on aids to assist in the process.

My wife, Madeline, tells my son that ‘Dada is gone to look after people’ and in many ways I think that sums it up well

The youngest of six, Colm returned to the family business in Kingscourt after studying civil engineering in Trinity College and worked in the sector for a few years.

“In 2011, I married Georgina and returned to help run the family businesses which also includes a furniture shop,” he says.

Life is good and he knows his children – Ella (5), Dillon (3) and Eoin (2) – are well looked after by family when he and Georgina, a medical scientist in Navan hospital, are busy. But spare time is limited. He wonders if and when the tipping point will come.

“In rural communities you can’t be a full-time funeral director. It wouldn’t be viable on its own. But then you can be stretched if a couple of funerals come in close to together and you’re busy with your other business. It can be stressful. Like before Christmas, I had to pull out of a trip to see Santa with the kids because I was needed for a funeral. That’s just a day in the life of a rural funeral director.”

Women in the industry

There are some women in the industry, such as Joanne Cooney in New Ross, but they are still few and far between.

In Dublin, Robert Fanagan’s eldest son, Luke (5), has started to ask where his daddy goes each morning.

“My wife, Madeline, tells him that ‘Dada is gone to look after people’ and in many ways I think that sums it up well,” says Robert.

The father of three, who is 37, is the seventh generation of Fanagan to work as a funeral director in the business that bears the family name.

“After college, I spent a year in Australia and got a lot of living out of my system. I knew I wanted to come back and work in the family business. I’m very proud of what’s been achieved by the family over the last 200 years and am delighted to be part of that now.”

By the age of 25 Robert, an active member of the IAFD, was a fully-fledged funeral director.

Nowadays he spends the majority of his days at their Dundrum office arranging funerals and meeting with families.

Persevered

He’s the third youngest employee out of a team of 80. “When I expressed a desire to join the business my mother was hesitant. She thought I was too young, but I persevered.”

On difficult days his three boys – which also include Nicholas (4) and Kyle (1½) – shower him with kisses and cuddles when he returns home after work.

“Some days are tough. Especially when you’re dealing with an unexpected death or that of a child. Of course, that affects you. It has to. So, when my boys jump on me on the sofa and say, ‘we love you, Dada’, that helps me through those more difficult days.”

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