Fun times in funeral business
Stuart Wheeler marks 45 years
Stuart Wheeler doesn’t advise bottles of alcohol in a coffin that’s about to be cremated.
‘‘Yeah, we try to discourage that – they have a tendency to explode,’’ he said.
The long- serving Porirua funeral director, owner of Wheeler’s Guardian Funeral Home, received another certificate from the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand for his reception’s wall recently, acknowledging his 45 years in the business.
He moved into the industry as an 18-year-old, and although two years from retirement age now, is not prepared to give it away just yet.
‘‘It’s lovely to be able to see a family go away and know they have done the right thing by the relative they have lost.
‘‘We have a motto here that says our family will care for your family and I’m very strong on that.’’ Mr Wheeler, who flirted with a career in medicine, reckoned he had overseen more than 6800 funerals in his career, none the same.
His CV is a full one and includes being involved in the burials following the Soweto riots in South Africa in 1976 and being one of eight funeral directors and embalmers who helped police identify victims of the Erebus disaster in 1979.
He received the New Zealand Special Service Medal in 2007 for his efforts with the Erebus identifications, which involved long days of harrowing work, ‘‘ years before DNA’’, he said.
It was the only time he nearly gave away his profession.
‘‘It affected me for quite a long time and I did think of getting out.’’
However, Mr Wheeler said those experiences helped shape his values as a funeral director, and as a person.
He is open to all the demands of a bereaved family, including the many cultures and religions he encounters in Porirua, even though it means he is on call seven days a week.
‘‘ We have such colourful cultures and communities in this city, and I enjoy every part of it.’’
There have been plenty of lighter moments in what is generally a serious job.
Arriving at a cemetery to find the grave hadn’t been dug – Mr Wheeler said this has never happened in Porirua, however – and hearses that wouldn’t start were among them.
‘‘One hearse had a flat battery and another just refused to start. After coming back from the cemetery [ in another company’s borrowed vehicle], I tried my hearse again and it went first time.
‘‘The [bereaved] family thought it was hilarious because the deceased was a mechanic.’’
Mr Wheeler sponsored a statue at the veterans section of Whenua Tapu, and it was unveiled in November.
He said it was part of giving back to a community it had been a privilege to serve.
‘‘I was thinking the other day, ‘Surely I haven’t been in the business that long?’
‘‘ It’s become really,’’ he said.
‘‘ People often think it’s the deceased we have to look after, but the thrust of what we’re doing is caring for the living.’’