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‘Nothing scary about death’

Anna Wolffram, funeral director and embalmer at Wairarapa Funeral Services, says it is a privilege to care for the dead. PHOTO/ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL

Death is a full-time gig for funeral director Anna Wolffram. She chats to ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL about confronting taboo subjects, supporting grieving whanau though lockdown, and the funeral industry getting younger.

“If you see it, you can be it.”

This is the wisdom Anna Wolffram would like to impart to young Kiwis hoping for a career in the funeral industry.

While many people would admit the mere thought of death keeps them up at night, it’s a full-time job for Carterton-based Anna, a qualified funeral director and embalmer.

A typical day at Wairarapa Funeral Services in Masterton, where she has worked for the past year, could involve anything from transporting a deceased person to the funeral home, to preparing a body for a family viewing, to returning cremated remains to whanau.

“The more time you spend with tūpāpaku (the deceased), the more you realise there’s nothing scary about death – it’s a natural progression,” she says.

“I think I’m more at peace with death, though I’m no less affected by the death of someone I love than anyone else.”

Other days, she keeps busy with cleaning hearses and “keeping the gardens weed free” – no less essential for creating a positive experience for grieving whanau.

Anna is one of the hundreds of funeral directors under 40 to enter the industry over the last decade – having started in 2012, aged 26.

Stereotypically, the words “funeral director” tend to conjure up images of older men in suits, who have been running their family funeral home for decades.

However, throughout the world, younger people are signing up for mortuary science qualifications in droves – partially inspired by morticians sharing the tricks of the trade on YouTube and Tiktok.

In New Zealand, TV shows such as The Casketeers have also helped demystify the industry, though Anna argues the uptick of younger funeral directors is simply “exponential growth”.

“When people see themselves represented in a career, they realise there’s a place for them.

“Young girls around will see Jacinda Ardern and realise they too could be Prime Minister.

“Funeral service is the same.”

Plus, younger funeral directors have been at the forefront of the industry’s innovation – embracing trends such as live-streaming services, memorial jewellery, eco-friendly burials, and sustainable caskets.

“Young people bring open-mindedness, fresh perspectives and new ideas.

“We don’t need to use the same veneer caskets just because it’s what we’ve always done.”

Anna started her career as an apprentice at Lychgate Funerals in Wellington, while studying through the Wellington Institute of Technology.

She graduated as top overall student with the New Zealand Diploma in Embalming in 2014, and later with the Diploma in Funeral Directing.

Last year, she started work at Wairarapa Funeral Services – alongside owner and seasoned funeral director Robert Milne.

Anna is passionate about helping prepare the deceased for their final send-off – which includes washing, embalming, dressing, styling hair and applying cosmetics.

For this, she uses makeup specifically prepared by embalming chemical companies for post-mortem faces [regular cosmetics don’t typically adhere to a dead person’s skin].

Anna says she gets a lot of confronting questions about embalming – the process of preserving a body using disinfectant fluids.

“Embalming has become quite sensationalised. People have some outrageous ideas. For example, I’ve been asked if we remove all the organs. That would be a no.

“It’s actually a very clinical process, done with precision and professionalism.

“But I think it’s awesome that people are asking. There’s still a mystery surrounding death, and it can be a taboo subject – so it’s important to talk about it openly.”

Anna says a typical day at work would more often be spent with the living – supporting bereaved whanau as they plan a loved one’s funeral.

This can involve assisting them as they liaise with celebrants, florists or caterers, making inquiries about various memorial requests, and “doing a lot of listening”.

“In our role, it’s important to listen more than we talk – and listen without prejudice.

“We can ask questions and provide some guidance, but the process is very much led by the family.”

More recently, Anna has provided a listening ear to those planning their own funerals – while perfectly healthy.

For example, people are happy to “walk in off the street”, and ask how they can make their own casket, or where to source locally-made urns.

Conversely, she has noticed a “worrying trend” towards people opting not to have a funeral – mostly because they don’t wish to burden their family.

Traditional mourning rituals, she says, like gathering to share memories of a loved one, can bring comfort and closure – and not doing so can exacerbate feelings of loss.

“Funerals are about the dead, but they’re for the living.

“People may think they’re shielding their family from more pain – but not having that closure can lead to a secondary grief.

“Money isn’t our focus – funerals can be very simple and no frills. We advocate for funerals because we know the power they have.”

This power became apparent over the past two years: as Anna and Robert have supported whanau who have been devastated to call-off funerals due to covid restrictions.

However, they put their problem-solving skills to the test – offering longer-term embalmings so families could postpone a funeral, or virtual funeral services and private family viewings using platforms like Zoom.

Anna says one of the most satisfying parts of the job is seeing the relief on a person’s face when they visit their loved one at the funeral home and see them looking rested and at peace.

“Families sometimes feel trepidation before seeing a loved one in their casket – and it’s very satisfying when they find this a positive, helpful experience.

“We’ve also had whanau help us with dressing their loved ones before the funeral. Spending that time with the deceased can help them process their grief – and they appreciate being able to provide that final act of love and care.”

Unfortunately, there have been times where she has had to prepare a child or young person for a funeral.

“But I look at it as helping a whanau by caring for their child or wee baby after death. And that’s a privilege.

“People assume the hardest part is dealing with people’s grief – but I just see grief as a natural response to love.”

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