Proud to help carry out duty as old as mankind

Elise Wolfgram at Gillions Funeral Services. Photo: Christine O'Connor
Elise Wolfgram at Gillions Funeral Services. Photo: Christine O'Connor
Summer Times reporters recently spent time following southerners going about their daily lives. Today Elise Wolfgram shares her day with John Lewis.

When you work at a funeral home, it can sometimes be difficult to work out when one day ends and another begins, Elise Wolfgram says.

"My day usually starts with my alarm clock going off at 7am, waking me after a refreshing eight hours of slumber.

"But occasionally it begins bleary-eyed at 2.15am, when my colleague rings me to arrange an immediate transfer from a rest-home or residence.''

During the few extraordinarily busy times of the year, the Gillions Funeral Services embalmer/funeral assistant says the days may run together entirely, when late nights at the office blend into restless sleeps and early starts.

"Typically, though, I arrive at the office at 8.30am with very little idea what the day will bring.''

She has a morning meeting that reveals her first few tasks of the day. Her job is incredibly varied.

"As my esteemed employer Keith Gillions puts it: `We wear many hats','' she says.

"In any given day, I can be found washing cars, vacuuming, cleaning toilets, trimming caskets, running errands and assisting at funerals.

"By virtue of my relative youth and the technological dependence associated with it, I have also become the IT helpdesk.

"The best part of my job is easily my work with the deceased.''

She says her introduction to the deceased often begins when she and a funeral director travel to a hospital, rest-home or residence to pick them up.

"This is like a well-choreographed dance sometimes, manoeuvering the stretcher up and down stairs, through narrow doorways and corridors, and even carefully moving the faithful cat or dog who is still standing guard on their master's bed.

"In a few well-practised movements, the deceased is enshrouded and placed on the stretcher. If we can find one, we place a flower on top as we wheel them to the hearse outside.''

Once back at the office, she starts preparing them according to the body's condition and the family's wishes.

She says New Zealanders in general have a brilliant attitude to death, stemming from both European and Maori customs that normalise death.

"Though deceased, they are still part of the whanau. Laying out the deceased with Kiwi-style grave goods including letters, photos, favourite knick-knacks and toys, bags of lollies or a final bottle of Speights for the journey is not unusual.''

Taking them home before the day of their funeral is another New Zealand experience.

Other countries do not seem so keen to share the last few days of their loved one's presence, she says.

Each tea break and meal time at Gillions is a chance for yet more staff meetings.

"It's important that we communicate, both for our professional day plans and for social reasons.

"The team here is friendly and tight-knit - an important part of debriefing after joyous celebrations and stressful events alike.''

The ages of the team members range from the 20s to the 60s, and on some Fridays when the retired Allan Gillions comes in for a fish and chip lunch, the age range climbs to the 80s.

"Between us all is varying years of experience, different backgrounds, approaches and points of view, and an invaluable source of support and wisdom in a workplace where death and mourning happen every day.''

By 5pm each day, she and her colleagues have probably witnessed the depths of grief alongside the mundane.

"Death and grief are our normal.

"As we pick up our work phones, make sure the ringer is on loud, and prepare for our turn on the on-call roster, we are proud in the knowledge that our labours have helped families perform a duty as ancient as humanity itself - the care of our dead.''

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