Local Folk: Jeanette Cullingford

Despite imagining that she would spend her working life in a bank, in fact Jeanette Cullingford has ended up with a varied CV that includes motorcycle postie and funeral director. The 47-year-old has directed more than 100 funerals and says every one is different. She spoke with Terry Moore about helping people through difficult times.

My original career was in the banking industry and I thought I’d be there for life. My dad was an accountant at a bank, so my family moved around a fair bit. I have lived in Fiji, Taupo, Kawakawa, and went to Bay of Islands College. Dad retired to Whangarei and I went to Kamo High School for my last year.  Mum said ‘if you get a job, you can leave school’. I knew higher education wasn’t for me, so I went around all the banks in Whangarei and asked if they had any jobs going. You could do that back then and secure a position.

I started off in a soundproof room, processing the cheques, keying in the amounts and making sure the cheques balanced with the deposit slips. It sounds prehistoric now. I worked through the different departments – customer service, teller, head teller and loans. That’s also where I met my husband, Neil. We have been married for 28 years. He still works for the same bank. I transferred to Auckland and we got married. We started our married life in Torbay but moved to Stanmore Bay within a couple of years because we wanted to raise our family in a smaller community. Stanmore Bay was very different then – we were the second house in a brand new subdivision. After 13 years, I stopped working in banking to have our two children and never went back. It was all sales and pressure by then and I didn’t want that any more.

While my children were growing up, I took a number of jobs that fitted around their needs, including an evening position placing healthcare workers into shifts and a stint in a school office. We’ve shifted house four times since we’ve first moved onto the coast and are currently in Red Beach. One day I saw a job as a motorcycle postie advertised. I didn’t have my motorcycle licence at the time, but I didn’t let that hold me back. It was local and the hours were great to fit around the children because you had an early start and were done by lunchtime, six days a week. The Hibiscus Coast is beautiful and I pictured myself gliding around the place on a motorbike, admiring the view. It was like that on a fine day, to a point, but it was quite physical for someone used to office work and you did it rain or shine. In the rain it’s not quite so pleasant. After a couple of years I went back to office work, including a job at a waste recycling centre in Albany and another with Auckland Council. After once thinking that banking was all I could do, I have learnt that actually I can do anything I put my mind to. At times I’ve been a long way out of my comfort zone but I don’t let that stop me if I’ve set myself a goal.

Outside work I love to keep my hands busy, especially on crafts. I have been an avid cross stitcher and also did a lot of paper tole – making 3D works in paper. Cake decorating is something I also enjoy. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so when the kids were small they always had a beautiful homemade birthday cake with professional looking icing. Next I’d like to get into mosaics – I’ve done a local course, but I will need more time and space before I can give that a proper go.

When North Shore Memorial Park Cemetery and Crematorium was looking for someone to work in the office, it appealed to me straight away. I don’t know why, but I felt drawn to it. Maybe it was because it was meaningful work where you were making a difference, which was something that had been lacking in my other positions. Part of the job was running the technology and music for funeral services and as I did that I began to realise that I would like more involvement with the families. So that was when I became a funeral director, which I learned on the job with Forrest Funeral Services. Recently I graduated with a Diploma in Funeral Directing from the Wellington Institute of Technology. The course was completed throughout 2018 and although I’d already been performing a funeral director’s role for just over a year when I started the course, the knowledge I gained was invaluable. We learnt in a lot more depth about protocols and respect and experts also taught us grief theories – what families might be going through and how we can better understand what a family is experiencing. I did a presentation on the topic of liminality, which is the phase between when a person dies and when the funeral takes place. It’s a really important time in the grieving process, as this is where people begin to find acceptance of their loss and start the journey into their new “normal”. As funeral directors we spend most of our time with families during this phase. Our job is to listen carefully, honour the family’s wishes and treat the deceased with the utmost respect throughout.

Funeral directing has been one of the most worthwhile things I’ve ever done. I go home feeling like I have helped someone, achieved something and made a stressful time easier for someone. You have to be a stable, calm influence whilst keeping the momentum going. Of course you have to be kind and gentle, be a shoulder to lean or cry on and offer support in any way the family needs. It’s not my moment – it’s theirs, so I do not impose anything, just present options. At the same time there is a lot of organisation to be done for the funeral and my job is to quietly go about putting all the details in place for the best funeral service possible. Every funeral is different. Some caskets are chosen so that family and friends can write messages or draw artwork on it. I have seen a family have everyone write a message on a post it note and stick it to the casket. Some people place photos or possessions on the casket instead of flowers – a golf club or fishing rod, a pair of runners, an important piece from a person’s life. Often there will be a slide show giving the mourners an interesting (and sometimes entertaining) look at the deceased’s life. Some prefer a formal service with organ music, hymns and prayer, while others request that it be light hearted and a celebration of their loved one’s life. During my time at North Shore Memorial Park I saw many different cultural services that included things like offerings of fruit, prayer chants, choir singing or religious rituals. There really is no right or wrong way – the service is perfect if it reflects the beliefs and personality of the deceased and gives comfort and peace to the family.

I’ve learnt the importance of families talking about how they would like their life to be remembered and it has prompted me to talk with my own parents, sitting down and mapping out what they want for their own funerals. That information becomes invaluable as a starting point for a family when the time comes to arrange a funeral. Having some information in place to begin the process with is a great comfort at a time of emotional strain. I believe a funeral is not only for the deceased but also for the folks who are left behind – it’s their chance to give a meaningful and respectful farewell to their loved one. By doing this, the family can continue on knowing that they have honoured their family member with love and respect.

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