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From pizza parlour to funeral parlour

Embalming was not a career Ethyn Milliken ever thought about.

He had never been to a funeral let alone considered embalming as a profession.

But two years after applying for a job at Evans Funeral Services, the 21-year-old has been named top overall graduate in New Zealand and the Lucent award recipient for top marks in theory for his recently-completed New Zealand Diploma in Embalming.

In 2017, Ethyn had finished high school, was working as manager at Domino’s Pizza and wondering what to do with his life.

The former Gisborne Boys’ High School student had the grades to become a doctor or a lawyer, but felt neither was for him.

He was torn between hotel management or marine biology. He had a strong scientific yearning but also wanted to help people.

Then he saw a job advertised in The Gisborne Herald for an embalmer at Evans Funeral Services.

It was to change his life.

Owner David Parker said Ethyn was unique because he was “off the street” — a member of the public who applied for the job when usually people had some sort of family link.

Becoming an embalmer had never occurred to Ethyn.

“No child grows up wanting to be an embalmer,” he said.

But the job advertisement and reading about it on the internet convinced him to apply, and in his letter he wrote that even if he did not get the job he was going to be an embalmer anyway.

The profession has become his passion and he loves it.

Being able to look after people for the loved one and their family at one of life’s most crucial and important times is “an honour and a privilege”, he says.

The self-confessed science geek is proud of receiving two awards through his embalming qualification but says it has been hard work.

Looking after people ‘an honour and a privilege’Embalming is a career of many levels.

The clinical procedural side is more subtle than most people realise, with solutions to fit each individual’s circumstances, he says.

Some people require longer-term preservation when they pass while others can have funerals within two days of death.

Evans treats every person as a guest, as the unique human being they were.

“When you’re dealing with someone’s loved one during a time of hardship and grief there is no room for error.”

It is a huge responsibility embraced by everyone at Evans.

“It continues to make you be your best. Nothing but the best is acceptable.”

Ethyn treats everyone as he would want a member of his own family to be treated.

“When I die I would not want anyone less than myself. It’s a beautiful thing to be part of that transformation.”

In the presentation side of his profession, he has learned restorative skills and techniques to make people look their best. Attention is paid to the smallest of details.

Some days it’s like a beauty parlour in the mortuary, he says.

He’s got the radio going, he’s painting nails, doing make-up and, on occasion, even perming hair.

He goes the extra mile to make every individual remind family and friends of how they are in their memories.

Every day is different because every person is different, he says.

“I fell in love with the career the moment I walked into the mortuary.

“I like looking after people.”

Because of the nature of his work Ethyn does not usually get to meet the whanau. But he thinks about them the whole time he is with their loved one.

“To be able to help with the remembrance and the peace for their closure is an honour and a privilege.”

He has had people come up to him and say, “you made my wife look how she did on our wedding day”and give him a warm embrace.

These are the special moments.


TOP MARKS: The practice of embalming is a self-regulated industry but embalmers all around New Zealand hold themselves to the highest standards. As part of his New Zealand Diploma in Embalming, Evans Funeral Services’ Ethyn Milliken had placements at mortuaries in Wellington. Being the top overall student of his 2018 graduation class was hard work but for Ethyn only the best will do when dealing with a loved one after they pass. Pictures by Liam Clayton