Q&A with Jim Nickerson

Jim Nickerson has been the steady hand at the helm of the 88-year-old Edinburgh Crematorium – owners and operators of Warriston and Seafield crematoria - for more than 13 years. As he prepares to retire, he was kind enough to share his parting observations with James Crossland.

How many years have you been in the bereavement industry and what is your current role?

I’ve been General Manager of Edinburgh Crematorium Ltd for 13 years and 3 months. We run two crematoria – Warriston and Seafield. I was in manufacturing management previously, though I didn’t particularly like it, so when I saw this job was advertised in The Scotsman, I thought ‘well, this’ll do me until I get a real job!’, so like many in the industry, I fell into it.

For most who enter the industry they either last a few months or they’re in it for years, because people either love it or they hate it. I’ve loved it and had 13 very happy years, but now it’s time for me to retire.

What were you doing before you worked in bereavement, and what skills did you bring from your previous role?

I’d always worked in manufacturing management before. Bereavement is very similar to a service industry or a manufacturing job in many ways. Yes, we’re dealing with bereavement, but day-to-day I don’t personally, I’m here to run a business. We have trained staff to deal with that, but we’ve still got other staff who never see a dead body. I think there’s an advantage to coming from outside of the industry, because you don’t have any preconceived ideas, therefore you tend to question more and get well-developed outcomes.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the past 10 years?

The change in the past 10 years has been significant, most of it legislative. It’s been a time of constant change. If change didn’t happen, then none of us would have a job now because we’d still be burying people.

New environmental rules around abatement equipment have required significant investment by many and metal recycling has been a very positive progression. The pace of change in the outside world during this period has been phenomenal and we’ve seen various bits of IT trickle down into bereavement - computerised music systems and internet broadcasting to name but two. We also happened to be the second crematorium in Scotland to do webcasting, so I feel we did well to help pioneer that.

What changes do you foresee in the next 10 years?

Social media is obviously going to change how people mourn. We’ve already started to see the impact of that – there’s an unofficial ‘Warriston Crematorium’ Facebook page, which we keep an eye on. It does say it’s nothing to do with the management of Edinburgh crematorium, but it’s still representing out brand on the internet, so we need to do some reputational management.

Some things people post we’d probably rather not see (for example, people worse for drink after a funeral) but who are we to judge? We also had an interesting incident with someone trespassing and recording a video dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in one of the chapels. We asked for it to be taken down but YouTube refused. I’ll give them credit; it was actually quite amusing, but still not how we’d want to be represented. Fortunately, in the last few years it’s only been viewed a handful of times!

I also think the rise of secularism is a notable trend; we need to understand how to facilitate that, but while still being conservative – because that’s what people want. People’s ideas of fun and lightheartedness are still moderated at a funeral, they still want dignity.

As for alternative means of disposal methods, people always want to be green, but cost comes in first. The economic realities will remain until the cost comes down to be on par. In many ways we’re very similar to other industries, but we’re always conscious not to make changes which upset people. Other industries can take that risk, we can’t so easily. We don’t always want to innovate ourselves; we want to take tried and tested technology from other industries.

You seem to have a genuinely great team working for you in Edinburgh. What do you think motivates them to do such a good job?

They enjoy it and they recognise the importance of the service they give to the community. I know we pay at the upper end of industry standards, so our guys aren’t worrying about money, they can just get on and do a good job. After 13 years I’m still one of the newest members of staff here, so I think that tells you something about the strength of our team.

We make sure our staff feel valued, and as a management team, keep an eye out for little issues and do what we can to stop them becoming bigger ones. You’ve also got to be respectful of the fact that each organisation has its own culture and that must be respected and worked within.

If you could only pass on one piece of advice to your successor, what would it be?

I’m not really one for passing on advice - it’s important my successor (who happens to be Mr John Proffitt) runs the business how he wants to. When I was in my early 20s and witnessing a major upset between a unionised workforce and the management of my company, an older and wiser senior manager said to me: “Management gets the workforce it deserves”. That comment really struck a chord with me, and I’ve always tried to conduct myself with that in mind.

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