Jo Place has been involved in more than 10,000 funerals.
She is 44 years old, and for as long as she’s worked, death has been a primary focus of her life.
She didn’t grow up desperate to work with dead people. She hadn’t much considered her own mortality, let alone the inner workings of a mortuary.
But when she left school and realised she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, she came across an administration role in a funeral home. “Everything is experience!” her mother said, and off she went to work in the death industry.
She enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the administration side that made her want to stay. It was the connection she developed with families.
Jo worked with elderly women who had lost their husbands, and had no idea how to pay their electricity bill. She sat down with them, and talked them through how to write a cheque, and how to transfer bank accounts over so things were no longer in their husbands’ name.
Working in a country town, she said, “If the lady was having to catch a bus, you’d say ‘well hop in the car and I’ll drive you home’, and when she needed milk on the way home, you’d stop for milk.”
Jo discovered how much satisfaction she got from “genuinely helping people,” a feature of the job she never expected.
Today, Jo doesn’t work in administration. She is the General Manager for NSW Funerals InvoCare, making her the youngest female General Manager of 86 funeral homes and cemeteries.
But after 25 years in the industry, Jo doesn’t think too much about death. Her job, she told Mamamia, is “making sure the family is being cared for, and that the family is really happy.” Her work is far more about the living.
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“There’s a huge amount of pressure,” she said. “A funeral director has three to four days to produce this event that’s equal to a wedding.”
“You can’t say, oh, sorry come back next week and we’ll do it all again for you,” she said.
In a matter of weeks, Jo said, you become a member of a family.
“It takes a certain personality to become a really good funeral director… we want the staff member who is going to wake up at 3am at night and think about the funeral service,” she said.
Jo works with families when they are at their most vulnerable – and they put an enormous amount of trust in her and her colleagues. You can’t help but get emotionally invested, Jo told Mamamia.
“You get the call at 9 o clock every night from the mum of the toddler who’s tragically died, and they say, ‘did you make sure, before you went home, did you say goodnight to her? Did you tell her that mummy loves you?'”
“You remember those…” Jo said.
While some cases are unimaginably tragic, Jo says she stays focused by doing her best to make the funeral memorable.
"It doesn't have to be a big spectacle," she said. "It doesn't have to be super expensive."
"It could just be, instead of flowers on the coffin... you know... say the man had a veggie patch and it was amazing, using those veggies."
The best funeral, is about reflecting who that person was in the most authentic way possible.
Jo recalls one family who had lost their son to mental illness. "When the mum came in," she recalled, "she slammed his photo down in front of me and she said, 'I want you to know who we're talking about here'."
"Throughout that conversation it was very apparent that despite all the wonderful aspects of his life, he always felt less than. And so she was adamant that his funeral would be more than. His life was more than his mental illness."
"It was about him and his achievements and his music and everything that he loved was represented at his funeral. They're the memorable ones, where you kind of go, you know what, let's make sure he's reminded as more than not less than."
It's so important, she said, to slow down with families, and allow those stories to come out.
Jo is also uncomfortable with how little we currently talk about death and funerals in our culture, and said, "we need to have more healthy discussion around death and more conversations around how to celebrate a person's life."
She wants to 'personalise death' - and said "it helps your family immeasurably to write down the things that you love. The colours, the flowers..."
It's time to think, Jo said, about what we want to happen when we die.