Research: Interview with Frank the undertaker
Frank greets me in his small office on the north end of Østerbro. He's dressed in a stylish, but modest suit and his handshake is confident.
"Welcome, was it only you who made it?" he asks. He offers a cup of coffee, and we sit down around the small table in the back room. There are four chairs.
"This is a peculiar line of work" he says exhaling.
Frank has been a undertaker for ten years. He started in a shop right by Rikshospitalet and now he runs two offices for Begravelse Danmark, the biggest undertaker franchise in Denmark.
"You see it in their expression when they walk in. I usually just say 'hello, come in and have a seat'. Then they say 'It's about my mother'".
His customers usually get a flyer from the hospital or a nurse tells them to call an undertaker quickly. Some have googled how to organise a funeral. When they see how much it requires they come to Frank.
There is a lot of administrative tasks to keep track of. It's a complex system with lots of protocols and systems; involving the hospital or hospice, doctor of the deceased, the municipality, death notices and sometimes even the police. Everything is digitised. But sometimes complications arises, so you have to know what you're doing.
"By the time my clients walk out my doors, they feel like a huge burden has been lifted from their shoulders. Thats my job".
I ask Frank if it is only the practical things an undertaker takes care of.
"My job involves a lot of emotions. On both sides of the table." Frank says looking out the window.
"I am here to take it all from their shoulders. That's hard to say when a mother has lost her 19 year old daughter".
"Grief is widely different. Sometimes people go into a bubble. Sometimes they need to physically say goodbye. To touch their loved one". For that, Frank need to prepare the body of the deceased with clothes and makeup.
"It's a peculiar business" he says and shakes his head lightly.
After all that I'm not sure what to say. So I ask an awkward question: "This might sound banal, but what do you like about your job?".
Frank exhales and leans back in his chair.
"When I get a thank you note, or praise from my clients. That's when you know you've made a difference. It takes something to be a good undertaker. Everyone can be good at their job. My job involves looking and talking about things people don't like. It involves a lot of stress. You have to keep your tongue straight in you mouth. There is no rehearsals for funerals, you have to know everything is done right."
Frank is present at all the funerals he organises.
"Some undertakers might just send their driver to make sure everything is in order. Not me, I'm there for everyone of them." He has a folder thick as a bible full of thank you notes from his clients.
"To be a good undertaker you can't think like a business man. My bosses probably don't like me saying that. But it's true".
Begravelse Danmark has offices in all of Denmark. The undertakers are measured on how many families are returning customers and how many funerals they organise each month and year. If an undertaker receives too many complains they're fired. Frank has heard of that happening.
In our online era there has popped up a few online undertakers, that do everything through a website. Frank has no appreciation for these.
"They provide a bad customers experience. People see that it only costs 8000 kroner and they choose it because it's cheap. Then it ends up costing them 17.000 kroner. They say 'Never again' and come to me the next time."
Recently the franchise Frank works for started providing free memorial websites to their customers. You can log in and set up a website with photos, videos and texts and even ligt a candle for your loved one. But it's not their core business.
"I learned quickly that people are not ready for thinking about that stuff when they come to us. I may ask them if I should put the obituary online, but that's it."
Frank has noticed few changes since he started ten years ago. When I ask him about some of the tendencies I have read about, he agrees. We talk a little about how when a famous person dies, the public feel the need to mourn too. Maybe thats what it will be like in the future when everyone is famous, Frank wonders.
Frank thinks things will change a bit when a new generation of clients come through his doors, but the core things will stay the same.
"Hensyn" he says.
It translates to 'human concern' or 'attention'.
"That's the core of it."