Be Inspired Series
Ian Milne & Sons Funeral Directors
Ian was a financial advisor and ran a restaurant before becoming a funeral director. He set up Ian Milne & Sons in Seagoe in Portadown in 2001 and a branch in Lurgan in 2008.
What does your job involve?
Fundamentally it is looking after people when they have just lost the most important person in the world to them.
The job has changed a lot from the days when it simply involved laying out the deceased and providing a coffin.Now we are engaged in helping the family with a whole range of pressing matters relating to the death of their loved one, from helping with social services grants to organising bereavement counselling, providing catering after the funeral service to monumental works and flowers.
It is a very personal service which involves great attention to detail and we aim to take care of as much as possible to help take pressure off the grieving relatives at what is a very difficult time for them.
How did you get into this line of work?
It was by pure chance in 1987. I was working as a financial advisor and running a restaurant in Cookstown with my wife when I offered to help local funeral director Robin Steenson to do a funeral. I was really inspired that night.
I was so impressed at how efficient and professional he was and how much he helped the family and I knew immediately I wanted to be able to do what he did. I enrolled in an 18 month diploma course and he supported me through it.
I worked for a couple of firms and then set up Ian Milne & Sons in Seagoe in Portadown in 2001 and then in 2008 opened a branch in Lurgan.
What sort of training or qualifications do you need?
This is an area of great concern to me as at the minute there are no laws to say that someone has to be qualified to set up a business as a funeral director.
We are offering such a sensitive service to the public and yet there are no regulations in place to ensure that standards are being upheld.
As a result, I have successfully lobbied with the National Association of Funeral Directors, particularly William Millar, to have a parliamentary working group set up at Stormont to look at regulating the industry.
The group met for the first time last year and has three MLAs on board and other funeral directors. We will be meeting four times a year to work on drawing up new legislation which we hope will encompass training.
The only course available here is a diploma course in funeral directing run by Eily McKiernan in Kilrea.
At the moment I am organising to send a member of my team to Dublin to do a course in embalming as nothing is available here.
What personal and professional qualities make a good funeral director?
You need to have empathy and be sensitive to the needs of others. You need to have good organisation skills and also be flexible.
I believe it is a vocation as it requires a lot of commitment. If I don't feel I have left a little bit of me with each family then I don't feel I have succeeded in doing the job I wanted.
What would you say are the biggest challenges and rewards of the job?
At the moment for me it is completing the new funeral home I am building in Lurgan. Time is another major challenge.
Last week I had three funerals in one day and you have to ensure everything is timed to perfection and that your men are in a state of preparedness.
The most rewarding part of the job is families. To know you have helped make a difficult time easier for them is just an unbelievable feeling. The thank-you from the little old lady whose husband you just buried means everything.
Do many young people consider a career in your sector?
Unfortunately there are not the same opportunities here for young people as there would be across the water. In England the training is much more diverse and easier accessed. I would like to see more training available and hopefully this will encourage more young people to consider it as a career.
I would advise anyone thinking of it as a career to be aware of the commitment needed, emotionally and in time. It is a seven day a week, 24-hour job.
Being around death so much, people would assume it is a depressing job -- is this the case?
It's not depressing. You have a job to do and you focus on doing that to the best of your ability. You are going into a family's life for three days and in that very short period of time you get to know them, their likes and dislikes, their beliefs and relationships on a very personal level and you build up a bond and a trust with them, which is a real privilege.
It is extremely difficult when dealing with children's funerals. As a father myself, it strains every emotional nerve or sinew to carry out the funeral of a child.
Your heart aches for the parents who expected their child to live a happy and full life. You just have to help them deal with it as best you can and as sensitively as possible.
Is your business 'recession-proof'?
Certainly the core product is recession-proof but as people find it more difficult to finish probate and wind up estates, it takes longer for payments to be made to funeral directors. It is imperative for the banks to look at the funeral businesses with a greater generosity of spirit.
You are one of the first firms in the province to offer eco coffins. What is behind that decision?
We are constantly striving to give people what they want and we had a couple of enquiries about sustainable coffins so I looked into it and found a supplier in Donegal. Since we introduced them last year we have been amazed by the demand; the phone has just kept ringing.
We have also had a big increase in the number of people pre-booking their own funerals and now with the biodegradable coffins we have seen an even bigger upsurge in the numbers of people pre-planning their own burials.
We've also recently acquired a range of containers for cremated remains which include hand carved wooden jars and a bespoke china gold leaf range.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
The pain of poor quality lasts long after the joy of a low price.
What are your interests outside of work?
I can't plan much as the job is a 24-hour call-out service but when I do get time, I like to follow motorcycle road racing.
I also tour churches giving talks on Faith Funeral Customs and Christians and have been involved in community work.