Being a funeral director may sound grim, but your work is much appreciated

Most little girls dream of being Darcey Bussell or the next Mariah Carey. But while her friends were singing into makeshift microphones, the 12-year-old Vicki Fraser was dreaming of coffins and caskets.

Now 27, Fraser works for the Highlands-based funeral service John Fraser & Son, founded in 1884 by her great-grandfather. "When I finished secondary school, my father was keen that I go to university, so I did a BA in business studies," she says. "After this I returned to Inverness and have now been working in the family business for five years."

Fraser says that, growing up, she was used to talking about death and bereavement, and it is something she has always been comfortable with. "Because of this, I have never had the same naivety about the concept of dying that many people have. Most people don't think about it until it actually happens."

It may seems strange to say that she enjoys her job, but she does: "There is a huge amount of job satisfaction and people are so appreciative of your help."

There are no legal formal training requirements for becoming a funeral director, but the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) runs a foundation certificate in funeral service, a diploma in funeral directing and a diploma in funeral-service management. The NAFD is also in talks with the Centre for Death and Society (CDAS) at the University of Bath to develop a foundation degree.

Fraser has completed a distance-learning diploma in funeral directing – covering issues such as rituals of different religions, burial at sea, repatriation and exhumation – and is studying for a diploma in embalming. Most of the learning is on the job, however.

And there are obvious downsides. "Dealing with the funerals of children and sudden deaths such as road accidents and suicides – we all find that particularly hard," says Fraser. "But it is important to treat every bereaved family as though they are the only bereaved family, and to remember that everyone is someone's loved one. Empathy, dignity and respect really are required at all times."

Funeral directing is a big commitment, and attention to detail and excellent client service are imperative. The work is 24 hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, says Fraser..

Ray Ward, senior partner of "green" burial company, Woodland and Wildlife Conservation Company, agrees. "Be prepared to get up in the middle of the night," he says. Ward has a 25-acre burial site in Brentwood, Essex. The original idea was to preserve the woodland, and with a background in business training, he decided to go into business with his daughter. Green burials seemed to tick all the right boxes.

Ward did 18 months' research before beginning and now also operates as a freelance funeral director at other people's sites. "Often other funeral directors don't come to us," he laughs, "as we are a large, muddy field and we spend too long on the burials." One of the most notable things about funeral directors is that they are really nice people, says Ward. "They all help each other and they helped us immensely, even though we were competition."

The profession does seem to attract a certain type. "When I look around our office," says Ward, "I realise that the people who work there are from broken homes or difficult marriages. It makes me wonder whether people who work in our profession are more compassionate. It is certainly a vocation rather than a job."

But it can be tough. "The day I nearly gave up was when I walked out to find a man leaning against his car. He had come to arrange a burial for his daughter, who had just been born, but he said, 'It might have to be a double as my wife is not expected to live.' That was hard. But I also get calls from people at 3am saying, 'I just wanted to make sure you would be there if I need you in the morning.'"

How to start

* Contact the National Association of Funeral Directors for details of their courses:

* Make an appointment with a reputable funeral director, and find out what the job entails

* Get a copy of the Manual of Funeral Directing from the NAFD website

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