Embalming a Dying Profession in Australia
They deal with death every day, allowing mourners to view the bodies of loved ones as they looked in life.
Embalmers perform a key role in Australia’s funeral industry, making bodies presentable for viewing and preserving and sanitising them for movement across state and international borders, or for entombment in a mausoleum.
But the profession might be suffering from an image problem.
“At the moment we have a nationwide shortage of embalmers,” says John Scott, national president of the Australian Funeral Directors Association (AFDA).
“It’s not a matter of concern at the moment but it will be.”
A recent survey identified embalmers as “in demand” occupations in the funeral industry and revealed the industry is looking overseas to plug the holes.
“Due to the current lack of qualified embalmers, the Australian industry is recruiting from overseas to meet ongoing demand,” says the Serviceskills Australia Funeral Services Environmental Scan 2010.
According to the report there are 173 qualified and registered embalmers in Australia and 820 funeral services industry businesses.
The survey also shows that in the 12 months from April 2008 only two people registered for the embalming certificate.
Sue Channer, human resources manager at West Australian based Bowra & O’Dea, says the company employs five full-time embalmers and one part-time.
The company has the capacity to employ more, but the problem has been finding them.
The company recently successfully lobbied the federal government to extend the temporary visa of a UK embalmer in its employment.
Channer says she’s placed a number of advertisements for embalmers in newspapers and online, but hasn’t been able to fill the positions.
“I’ve done a number of adverts for qualified embalmers and I have not been successful and I’ve had hardly any applications,” she says.
“Basically, a funeral business can’t operate without an embalmer.
“What you need to think about is what are the health issues to the community if we couldn’t provide the service.”
Don Sweet, chairman of the Australian Institute of Embalming, says the shortage is primarily an industrial issue at this point.
“At the moment it’s a concern, it’s not to the stage where it’s critical or anything like that,” he says.
“The shortage means that there’s just not enough around to do the necessary preparation. Generally people get by, but it’s a matter of staff having to work later, not having shifts off.
“But’s a concern and people can see that issues may come up very shortly if it’s not addressed.”
Sweet says one of the reasons for the current shortage is that the older generation of embalmers is retiring or moving into other areas of the industry.
Sue Channer says it can simply be hard finding someone who comes with the practical skills, stamina and empathy needed for the job, which includes draining bodily fluids, closing openings in the body and infusing dangerous chemicals.
An embalmer may also need to use wax and makeup to repair damaged bodies.
On top of that embalmers need stamina and fitness to stand through the day and lift dead bodies, and the empathy to communicate with bereaved friends and family.
“The mental energy and understanding required restricts the recruiting ability because too few people can handle the emotional demands of the position,” Channer says.
Sweet admits that working in a mortuary every day isn’t for everyone.
“There are some people, that’s their thing, and they want to work all day in a mortuary and they’re happy to do that,” he says.
“But it’s a matter of horses for courses.”
Sue Channer says embalming is just one of those jobs that people tend to shy away from.
“Maybe Australia needs to promote the profession a bit more,” she says.
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