When she was 12 years-old, Chloe McKnight decided she wanted a career working with the dead. While her classmates planned a future in fashion or banking, she spent a fortnight doing work experience at her local undertakers and, on arrival, was confronted with a corpse in the chapel of rest. “I felt strangely comfortable with it,” she says. “It must have been something I’d seen on TV that made me want to do this kind of thing, and since my mother was a nurse I was used to discussions of death at the dinner table.”
Now, at 25, McKight is funeral director at Heritage & Sons, part of CPJ Field & Co, in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, and has learned that the job involves challenges other than the daily exposure to mortality. As a small young blonde, she subverts the stereotype of an undertaker. “When I arrive at the scene of a sudden death, I get a lot of comments from police about being female,” she says. “When I was applying for jobs as a director I’d be told I’d be more suited as an administrator. You definitely have to be more persistent to break into the profession if you’re a woman.”
McKnight’s appearance belies a steely nerve that has not only inured her to slights about her gender, but also to a routine of traumatic sights that few of us encounter in a lifetime. “When the police call you to remove a body on behalf of a coroner, you don’t know what you’re going to see – an accident victim, a suicide …” she says. “It can be overwhelming at times – even now I sometimes have to take a deep breath – and it’s always unsettling when the person is younger than I am.”
Despite the many horrors and the 2am call-outs to collect a corpse when she’s on night duty, she loves her job and so, it seems, do most in her profession. It took her two years to find a post as a funeral director mainly, she says, because people tend to stay in their post till they die. McKnight worked for 18 months as an NHS mental healthcare assistant after graduating from Northampton University with a BSc in psychology and an MSc in child and adolescent mental health. With a dissertation on bereavement behind her, she went straight into the profession at director level, but another route is to start as a funeral arranger or administrator and work your way up the business.
TheNational Association of Funeral Directors and the British Institute of Funeral Directors both offer an introductory course for the job, which pays between £15,000 to £30,000, and, after six months’ experience, employees can sign up for a diploma course.
McKnight’s domain consists of a drive-in workshop, where coffins are lined and customised and where the hearses unload the deceased; a concrete-floored embalming chamber with wall-to-wall refrigerators where up to three bodies can be stored and a small inner room, furnished to look like a domestic lounge, where bereaved relatives are conducted. It’s here that the most demanding part of the job unfolds. “Some of the stories families have to tell are heartbreaking,” says McKnight. “You have to be involved and empathetic, but it’s vital to remain a bit detached because you can’t take on everyone’s grief.”
After only a year in the job, she is not surprised by funeral requirements, however unusual. “There’s no such thing as an odd request, because funerals are so personalised now,” she says. “People have all kinds of things in their coffin, like bottles of alcohol or their pet’s ashes. Relatives feel comforted to know that their grandmother has her favourite packet of cigarettes with her.” She has been asked to source a tractor to carry a hearse to a funeral service and coffins made to resemble like boxes of chocolates.
Arranging each ceremony – there are usually between one and five a week – takes hours of administration, although her two part-time funeral arrangers complete most of this to allow her to spend more time with the bereaved families. “Cremations involve a lot of legal paperwork,” she says. “I didn’t realise the number of people you have to work with professionally – GPs, florists, printers, musicians as well as the churches and crematoria. I wake up sometimes at 3am and panic about whether I’ve sent the order of service and my biggest fear is that the grave will be the wrong size to take the coffin.”
Despite the heartache that drives the job, undertakers’ workplaces are surprisingly cheerful places. “We’re a really jolly bunch of people because we understand the fragility of life and have learned to make the most of it ,” says McKnight who has already planned her own funeral.
Empathy, efficiency and a dignified manner are, inevitably, vital qualifications for a career in funeral services, but so is flexibility, both geographical – “You have to be prepared to move across the country because director jobs are hard to come by,” says McKnight – and , given the unpredictable hours, timewise.
McKnight works one weekend in five and takes it in turn on night duty with other branches in the chain. “People think funeral directors just walk in front of a hearse, but you could be out at 3am collecting a body and back at 10am arranging a burial,” she says. “I’ve learned never to turn down a cup of tea when it’s offered and a crucial tip, given that you never know when you’ll get home, is always to take a lunchbox with you.”