A life dedicated to death

18:56, Nov 11 2012
DEDICATED TO DEATH: John and Betty Rhind.

John and Betty Rhind are the grand old couple of Christchurch funerals. The husband and wife team tell Beck Eleven how the industry has changed.

A chat and a cup of tea can go a long way towards alleviating one of the most difficult conversations a person can have.

Take it from the experts: John and Betty Rhind, a Christchurch couple who dedicated so much of their life to death.

For John Rhind, 86, there seemed no other career choice than working at John Rhind Funeral Directors, the firm of his father and grandfather before him.

"I was born into it," says Rhind.

"I lived all my life on the premises. It's ingrained in my whole being. It's funny because I knew my grandfather well; he had great stories and now I'm at his stage of life."


Rhind retired more than two years ago, leaving a son and grandson in the family business in Richmond.

Growing up in the funeral home meant the young Rhind could be found helping to move coffins and bodies.

Rhind did not enter the business immediately. In his early 20s he was an electrical draftsman working in Hereford St. His soon-to-be-wife, Betty, worked in offices opposite. The pair would occasionally wave to one another and eventually Rhind plucked up the courage to cross the road. They married in 1953.

By 1958, Rhind and his wife inherited a share of the business.

Betty, 84, retired as a catering manger last year and says working around death never worried her.

"I'd always be talking to people, taking them in to see the casket or the body. It was a matter of having to get comfortable with it in the beginning, and eventually, you were comfortable - unless it was a child."

When the pair were starting out, it was a very personal service, no receptionist, no great staff pool. The Rhinds took most of the phone calls.

"It was hard doing it like that and raising five children," recalls Betty.

"You'd be packed up for a weekend away and have all the kids in the car, then the phone would ring and you'd unpack everyone again. That was just how it was."

The occupation of funeral direction is a diploma course these days but far more has changed.

"There was once a time people only spoke about death if they absolutely had to," Rhind says. "At one time there were probably four active firms in Christchurch with family ties. Now there are 12 or 13, many part of large corporations. We used to help each other, have a visit and a cup of tea. It's not really like that any more, although through the earthquakes everybody helped.

"Until recently it's been quite a mysterious occupation. Six Feet Under opened people's minds.

"No-one ever considered the work in the background. We are governed very strongly by government acts and bylaws. People never have to see that side but we do work very hard in the background to make sure everything is correct."

One aspect of the changing industry Rhind finds hard to stomach is advertising.

"It's a big part of it now but it's not to my liking, I'm afraid. In the easy days we were more or less restricted to a column inch in the newspaper. I almost shuddered when I saw all the advertising start. In my mind it's a little bad taste but it's just part of it all now. Years ago people would have been very offended, now it's accepted."

Rhind says one of the greatest fears of a funeral director is incorrect identification of a body and one of the biggest problems is unclaimed ashes.

Last year he was awarded a Queen's Service Medal for more than five decades of work as a funeral director and supporter of charities, such as the City Mission and Cancer Society, but the real merit is in satisfaction, he says.

"You've helped people at a very important time. Outsiders view it as a lucrative occupation but it was never like that. At the end of the year you might find out it's been financially good but you were always so busy making sure everything was right.

"We wouldn't survive this work without a sense of humour. People do and say strange things during that time. You'll go to one house and the family will be so upset or traumatised you can't get a word out of them. Other people are sorted and practically push a scotch in your hand."

But it's not all cups of tea, conversations and paperwork. Being called upon to bury friends or family is hard and sometimes even a stranger's death will tug the heartstrings.

Despite years dedicated to helping others decide their final send-offs, Betty hasn't decided on a burial or cremation. "I don't like to think of my body being burned but, then again, I don't particularly want to think of the worms either."

Her husband would like to be tidy and well-presented.

"But you never know, maybe by the time I go, I'll only have one suit to choose from."?

The Press