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Funeral Director achieves PhD

Funeral director Jennifer Watkins has seen many changes since starting in the funeral industry more than 30 years ago, something which was the topic of her recently completed PhD thesis.

Dr Watkins, who manages West Coast Funerals on Lower Eyre Peninsula, has achieved the pinnacle of her university studies by achieving her PhD through the Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga.

Her doctoral thesis 'Rural Rites: Women's Experience of Funerals and Remembrance on Lower Eyre Peninsula in the post-1960s Era' draws on her experiences in the funeral industry and her life-long residency in the region.

While Lower Eyre Peninsula was the focus, she also embraced the history of funerals nation-wide, with her thesis finding in recent decades the impact of feminism, individualistic rites, declining religiosity, and acceptance of cremation had brought significant changes now evident in many contemporary Australian funerals.

Dr Watkins said when she started in the industry, funerals were mostly held at churches and there was not as much acceptance of cremation as there was today.

"I was able to see how all this was changing and thought 'how lucky have I been to have seen all these changes'," she said.

"They changed funerals most in the acceptance of cremation, it wasn't accepted much at all and it took years for people to accept it.

"Feminism had a big influence because it empowered women to get into this industry."

With a keen interest in pursuing knowledge, Dr Watkins began her studies in 2006, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2010.

Deciding to pursue further learning, she pursued her Honours Degree with her dissertation 'Beyond Cemeteries: Changing Trends in Australian Funerary Memorialisation from 1975 to 2010' which looked at changes taking place in cemeteries and places of remembrance.

"I've always had a great desire to seek knowledge, but I got to a certain stage where I realised I didn't know enough," Dr Watkins said.

"When I left high school, many years ago, I didn't know of anyone who went on to university, such opportunities did not exist then, especially for women.

"Now, such study is available to anyone, regardless of age, or distance from universities, as learning can be carried out online".

Also noticing changes in burial rituals, Dr Watkins said people had been moving away from traditional cemetery burials to doing private rituals, such as scattering cremated remains at sea.

After achieving her Honours degree Dr. Watkins became a PhD candidate, and over the following years carried out research in the field of regional history, with an analysis of women's mourning rites.

There was no graduation ceremony last year due to COVID-19 however she finally attended a ceremony at the university on June 18 where she received her PhD.

Dr Watkins said it had been a huge privilege to study at university.

She said she was intrigued to see how the industry changes further, especially as COVID-19 continues to have an impact.

"COVID has affected funeral procedures and people have had to accept changed ceremonies and rituals," she said.

Dr. Watkins said her work in the funeral industry continued to be highly rewarding, "because it's an industry which keeps you in touch with humanity, you come to realise you're a part of this great cycle of life".

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