Fifth-generation funeral director Dale Maroney (Photo: supplied)

Making a living, tenderly, out of the dead

Dale Maroney never doubted what her life’s work was going to be. The funeral business was “in her blood” and she’d been earmarked from a young age to take over Walter Carter Funerals from her father.

“I used to play among the coffins and talk to the drivers as they were polishing the hearses,” she recalls. “Everyone at school knew when my dad had come to pick me up because he would come and get me in a hearse. There’d be a chorus of kids singing, ‘Da-a-a-ale, your dad is here.’”

A fifth-generation descendant of Walter Carter, an Englishman who immigrated to Australia in 1884, Maroney has the task of carrying on her family’s legacy – an undertaking business that is one of the oldest in the country, operating continuously since 1887.

A tiny, energetic woman who buzzes through her office in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs with a vitality almost incongruous with her job, Maroney has organised everything from bikie funerals to rock star burials.

“When we did [AC/DC co-founder] Malcolm Young, his family entrusted us with a $20 million guitar for the service.

“We kept it in the office overnight and we were so relieved to finally give it back!”

Not all funerals go according to plan. “We had two guys driving a hearse to a funeral,” Maroney recounts, “and they were going up a hill. Next thing you know, the coffin had fallen out the back. They had to stop the car, put the coffin back in and continued on their way like nothing happened.”

Today Walter Carter’s CEO is wearing a finely woven light blue dress, with loops of silver necklaces around her neck and stacks of silver rings on her fingers. She is animated as she speaks. A fast talker, she says the thing she struggles with most is suppressing her naturally bubbly personality when dealing with clients.

“There’s a lot of myths around death and dying,” she observes. “I don’t think our culture deals with death in a very healthy way. People are too detached from death.

“I had this one woman who came in who just didn’t want anything to do with it. She said, ‘Just get rid of mum.’”

A single mother-of-two, Maroney is a lifelong Eastern Suburbs resident, with deep family connections to the area. She points out the prominent felt board on which thank you cards from appreciative clients are displayed, opposite clusters of work stations silently tended by staff dressed in crisp white shirts.

Maroney works in a male-dominated industry (Photo: supplied)

Through the hallway is the “arranging room” – industry-speak for the area where funeral arrangements are discussed with families.

It contains a conference table surrounded by squishy black leather chairs, a fish tank and a collection of indoor plants. It could easily pass for a reception room in an upscale real estate agency. Glossy marketing materials sit in neat piles on a nearby shelf.

From very early on, Maroney saw it as “pretty much inevitable” that she would work in the undertaking industry, having grown up around it. From the age of eight, she would follow her father, Gordon Smith, into work. Talk around the dinner table often included gossip about funerals. Family members would give their professional verdict on services they had witnessed.

After completing a degree in social science, Maroney began working at Walter Carter. She started out fetching coffees and doing paperwork. She then spent 14 years as a senior manager at a real estate industry organisation, before returning to the family business.

It’s this outside experience that has helped her to reposition Walter Carter as a thoroughly modern company. Since she took over in 2004, Walter Carter Funerals has comprehensively revamped its image, with a new website, a multimedia strategy, and video and blog content.

Maroney’s business card states “CEO” in bold crimson lettering. She peppers the conversation with corporate jargon: “vertical integration”, “brand collaboration”, “digital strategy”.

The company is also renovating. “We plan to knock down this wall and refurbish the site so that we can receive families and conduct ceremonies,” she says, with a sweep of her arm.

Not everyone is cut out for this line of work. Maroney says it’s a calling, and often she doesn’t find people – they find her. Among her staff are ex-cops, trainee priests, IT guys and film producers. She is careful to ensure that those who weren’t born to the role take extra care to blow off steam.

“The Christmas parties here are out of this world,” enthuses employee Jasmine Cameron, who says of Maroney:

“She’s always so caring. She’s a great boss and a lot of fun.”

No two funerals are the same, and Maroney – who brims with zeal for her work – knows exactly what she wants for her own funeral. Like all her staff at Walter Carter, she has already filled out her branded funeral planning booklet.

Things can get busy in the undertaking business. Walter Carter’s phones are answered 24/7 and staff frequently work long and unsociable hours. The logistics of organising paperwork and flowers, transporting the dead and putting together orders of service are compounded by the sheer volume of funerals which sometimes must be scheduled simultaneously.

The funeral industry is not for everyone (Photo: Shutterstock)

A stack of Walter Carter catalogues reveals the array of options available: flowers ($800-$900 for blooms that fully cover the coffin), audio-visual presentations, printed memorial pamphlets.

Coffin and casket models are, clearly, branded to appeal to Eastern Suburbs residents. They include “The Bondi” ($8,955), featuring “traditional maple with champagne velvet lining and metal handles”, and “The Woollahra” ($5,320), with “solid oak metal handles and embossed ivory satin lining”.

Walter Carter recently relocated from Bondi Junction, where it was originally established, to suburban Waverley. The move was bitterly opposed by Waverley locals. Maroney took the furore in her stride.

“My dad was a pragmatist,” she explains, recalling an earlier dispute with neighbours over a development proposal. Gordon Smith offered to pay compensation rather than going to court. “He strode into the meeting room with all the lawyers and said, ‘Let’s flip a coin and I’ll just pay that.’ And he did.”

She is the first woman in her family to run the business, in an industry that has traditionally been male-dominated.

“Women are seen as more emotionally intelligent,” says Maroney.

“Some of the traditionally feminine traits, such as attention to detail, are perfectly suited for working in the funeral industry.”

Asked how outsiders react when they learn what job she does, she replies: “I don’t normally volunteer the information. People either avoid me or they get really curious and want to ask lots of questions.”

At the same time, she believes people don’t talk enough about death.

“Only six per cent of Australians plan their funeral. But if they had the conversation, they could help their loved ones avoid the stressful experience of having to arrange their funeral. They would also get the funeral they want.”

Unlike many funeral directors, Maroney didn’t participate in the embalming of her late parents. With a twist of the mouth, she says she has never really got into that side of the business. She considers her most important role is to counsel the bereaved.

“I’m a people person and I like to help. At the end of the day, the thanks I receive make it all worthwhile to me.” – @marynguyen_AU