Position of trust

For this young BSSC alumnus, death is an inevitable part of life and a conversation we all need to embrace.

By John Holton

Bendigo Senior Secondary College alumnus, Jesse Cattell, knows his career choice is one that evokes strong and varied responses from the people in his life.

“It’s understandable,” he says with a smile. “There aren’t too many guys in their early 20s working as funeral directors. It varies between people who are fascinated and want to know every detail of what I do, to those who don’t want to know at all. That’s the nature of death I think… it can still be a taboo subject.”

So how do you end up in the funeral business? Jesse certainly didn’t set out to become a funeral director. As a young man he was on a pathway towards accountancy and finance. But a week of work experience at William Farmer Funeral Directors in Year 10 stopped him in his tracks.

“I enjoyed it so much I volunteered to work in the school holidays as well,” Jesse says. “When I started Year 11 at BSSC the Managed Individual Pathways team arranged for me to do a school-based apprenticeship. It meant I could complete my Certificate II in Funeral Operations and still spend three days at school each week.”

Jesse remembers Accountancy and Business Management as the subjects that pushed his buttons academically and have helped him the most in his chosen career.

“The teachers were so passionate that it made me passionate,” he remembers. “My Accountancy teacher and Advisor, Steve Boyle, used to say ‘You’re either on the bus or off the bus’. That really stuck with me. I think that’s the key to lifelong learning… staying on the bus.”

While age hasn’t been a barrier for Jesse in his chosen career, he has had to deal with people’s perceptions of what a funeral director should be.

“It’s true that Funeral Directors have traditionally been older people,” he says, “and there is a perception that someone my age won’t have the maturity to cope with the job.

“But the reality is, I was eased into the business one small step at a time. In the beginning I washed cars, cleaned the chapel, assisted at funerals… but the whole time I was observing the experienced staff; watching how they interacted with families; listening to the conversations happening around me.

“People in the community have seen me grow into the role, and I think that’s great.”

Being younger also means Jesse is across new technologies, and can bring those skills to an industry that is constantly changing and innovating.

“We live-stream funerals all around the world,” he says. “We also have online tributes and engage in social media. We’re always looking for ways to use new technology.”

Innovation also extends to the way people’s lives are celebrated. For Jesse it’s about being there, fully, for the families who walk through the door; a kind of extended family during a really challenging time.

“Some people have a definite plan for what they want a funeral to be, but many people don’t,” Jesse says. “It’s so important that people talk about their wishes in advance, but for many people that’s still a difficult conversation.

“Every funeral should be unique, and it’s our job to help families achieve that. One of the best parts of the job is learning about the person; hearing their stories.

“When it comes to designing a funeral, I say if it’s legal it’s possible… like arranging a Harley Davidson to transport the coffin. That happened not so long ago.”

Jesse would like to see death spoken about a lot more freely and often. Part of his role at William Farmer Funerals is to engage with the local community and make the funeral industry more transparent.

“We run community events like the ‘Biggest Morning Tea’ for the Cancer Council, Open Days for the broader community, and even tours of the facility for school groups,” Jesse says. “We have these incredible facilities, and it’s important that we’re a community hub rather than just a place people come for funerals.”

One of the challenges for a young person in the funeral industry is the all-encompassing nature of the job, and Jesse admits that most days he finds it hard to ‘leave work at work’.

“It’s probably something I need to get better at,” he says, “but you always want the best for the families you’re caring for. There’s not a lot of downtime, and my social life does suffer sometimes, but I have no regrets. The rewards definitely outweigh and sacrifices.

“People place so much trust in me, and to have that responsibility is humbling and a real privilege.”