John O'Connor Funeral Directors: Karla, 16, is third generation to work in Falkirk family firm

While many of her contemporaries are still studying in school or further education, Karla O’Connor is learning first hand about some of the toughest experiences people face.

Becoming the third generation to work in her family’s funeral director business finds her meeting and helping people on a daily basis as they attempt to come to terms with the death of a loved one and the arrangements that need to be made.

At only 16, Karla understands that some people might consider her very young to be in the role, however, says that no-one has ever refused her advice or support.

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But her teenage years belie the maturity she already has – and the knowledge gained first-hand from her dad Steven O’Connor and late grandfather John O’Connor.

Karla O'Connor at their graveside of her papa John O'Connor who started the family business in 2003
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She said: “My earliest memories are of my dad and papa working. And it’s certainly not a nine to five job, it’s 24/7. They could be called out any time after someone passes.

"Even at home we always knew that whatever the time, when the phone rang and dad answered, we had to be quiet.

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"My papa and I were joined at the hip: we were always together. I probably picked up lots of things about this job without even realising.”

Karla admits that school was never her favourite place, but is grateful for the support provided by Denny High staff to help her find her path in life.

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Karla O'Connor is the third generation of the family to work in the business set up by her grandfather John O'Connor and now run by her dad Steven

"It’s strange as I never really liked the environment of school but now being involved in a funeral with 100 people present doesn’t phase me,” she said.

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Her love for animals shone through from her involvement with a rabbit sanctuary and she applied to both Oatridge and Coatbridge Colleges to do related courses. However, in July 2021 she spent time working in the family firm’s Denny office, then a spell in the Camelon branch and it made her realise this was what she wanted to do.

"At first I was answering the phone, sitting with families and making cups of tea but I was getting a real sense of purpose from it all. I know that I can ask my dad anything and he is supporting and teaching me, but everyone who works here is like family and they’ve been great,” she explained.

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"Now I’m also doing the behind the scenes work to get people ready for their final journey, as well as if families chose to visit their loved one before the funeral. I think if someone has been ill, particularly if they’ve died in hospital, it is good to come to see them again as they look so peaceful.

Karla O'Connor who says she never knows what each day at work is going to bring
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"I’ll ask how someone would wear their hair and what make-up a woman would usually have on. If it was someone who would spend a couple of hours getting ready to go out, then I’ll spend a couple of hours getting them ready for their final journey. I see it as something that is important to do both for them and for their family.”

Karla admits the toughest part of her role is after the death of a young person, almost always unexpected and their family left reeling from the loss. “I do look at the person who has passed and realise that they are not going to be able to do all the things that they had hoped to do in life but on these occasions I have to hold back on my emotions and focus on helping the family. You become their rock and have to do your own grieving later.”

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She admits some families keep in touch after the funeral and says that isn’t a problem as everyone goes through the grieving process in different ways. “If they want to talk, then I’m happy to listen,” she added. “There is a real connection with people in this job and that doesn’t end at the crematorium or the cemetery.”

The business which bears her grandfather’s name was set up by John O’Connor in 2011 after he spent a number of years with the Co-operative Funeral Services. Sadly, three years ago the family was rocked when John died unexpectedly at home, a week before his 60th birthday.

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Karla said: “It was such a shock. And I remember at that time wondering how my dad could still do his work, arranging funerals for other people when he was grieving for his own father. But I now understand that people rely on us and he had to keep going.”

She says her mum Julie and grandmother Marie are delighted that she is the third generation in the business, as neither of her brothers, Declan or Keigan, were showing an interest in being involved. “Mum is really delighted that dad and I work together but I was never pushed into the job. The first time I walked in front of the hearse with my dad was a special moment.”

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Karla said her friends accept the work she does and that some weekend or evenings she has to turn down trips out as she is on call. “If someone gets in touch after a person passes, we are usually with them within the hour, no matter the time of day. But it’s all part of the job.

"I love that we are there for families at difficult times and really want to make a difference for them. I know people are sometimes surprised at the job that I do but they accept me when they see that I am capable of doing it.

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"We never know what each day will hold when we come into the office, but we’re always ready to help. That's what I probably enjoy most about my job.”