In the first edition of More to Death, our editor Rosie wrote about the rise in direct cremation services. This time she is observing another trend, the rise of the progressive female funeral director.
“I am not saying that there are no new male undertakers, it just seems that more often than not they are women”.
Rebels? Mavericks? What on earth inspires these women to work with death and to be doing it so differently?
Who are they?
Well, there are the stalwarts who have been going for many years, they are and were forward thinking women within established firms. Like Anne Becket Allan in East Anglia www.rosedalefuneralhome.co.uk and Tracey Warren at Stoodleys in the west countrywww.stoodleyandson.co.uk. Barbara Butler was one of the pioneers in both alternative undertaking and green burial provision down in Somerset. firstname.lastname@example.org. Then there is Cara Mair in Brighton who’s original funeral company is now well established and expanding across Sussexwww.arkafunerals.co.uk .
In the last edition we looked at Poppy Mardall in London with her simple funeral companywww.poppysfunerals.co.uk. Another brand new start up is Tracy O’Leary whose speciality is direct and natural burials in the Cambridgeshire area www.woodlandwishes.co.uk. Rosie Grant up in Manchester is a well respected flexible provider www.naturalendings.co.uk as is Victoria Allan in Ludlow www.vallenfuneralsludlow.co.uk. Claire Callender in Totnes www.thegreenfuneralcompany.co.uk , Linda Blakelock in Gateshead www.divinedepartures.co.ukand Paula Rainycroft in Bristol are partners within very different, progressive undertaking companies www.heavenonearthbristol.co.uk.
Two of the most recent to take the plunge are Wendy Pratt in Yorkshire www.wendy-pratt-funeral-services.co.uk and Maggie Brinklow in Northamptonshire www.bespokefunerals.co.uk. Wendy of course was the manager of Tarn Moor Natural burial site and has now decided to become a full time undertaker. Lucy Jane’s ‘individual funeral company’ is just opening up in Oxford email@example.com and Lel Wallace and Sarah Stuart “lady funeral directors” are doing great things down in Bridgwater www.wallacestuart.co.uk.
Clare Brooks with her Volkswagen funeral company will do whatever is needed in Coventry and beyond www.volkswagenfunerals.co.uk . Then there is the plucky Catherine Broad in Barnet, London who is offering the best value direct cremation service of all in the UK for £950 inc. She is already twice as busy as last yearwww.999funerals.com.
So Girls why do you do it?
Over 20 years ago I started getting involved in funeral arrangements out of sheer anger at how many of the undertakers I came in contact with just ‘took over’, telling families what they should have, at prices providing the highest profit. I felt families should be given as much choice as possible and to be helped to have whatever they wanted – so long as it was legal! And that’s what I’ve done, from promoting natural burial grounds and eco-friendly coffins to supporting families to do entirely without undertakers if they wished. I can also provide the most traditional funeral you could imagine – if that is what is requested!
So long as we covered our costs and overheads we aren’t looking for profit, either. And I’m glad to say that generally there seems to have been a real shift in the way many undertakers now help families, much of that helped by the Natural Death Centre’s influence.
My partner thought I said I wanted to open a “coffee” shop!
I started selling all sorts of gifts and objets d’art for births, weddings and funerals. I was soon perceived as doing funerals (which was not my intention) and because my shop was so funky, people expected funerals with a difference. I soon became hooked on opening peoples’ eyes to possibilities, relevance and choice.
Although I receive money it is more like a vocation. I get very close and intimate with families maybe never to see them again. However, many do keep in touch, coming to buy presents or accessories and talk about the funeral. Unlike a ‘traditional’ Funeral Director’s premises, which you only go into to arrange the funeral, people come in all the time. To some, the fact that I am also an undertaker is a surprise if they haven’t read what I do in the window.
I think death, like life is wonderful and like life it has its good and bad times. We all have to go so let’s rejoice in the way we do and not persist in the Victorian way of death that still abounds today.
I like to raise awareness of the simplicity of ‘green’ burials without all the fuss, environmental damage and unwanted expense of mainstream funerals. Something simple, natural, personal and affordable.
I now find myself being called a ‘green burial arranger’ or ‘green burial lady’ rather than a funeral director. I am both moved and privileged when a family let me be part of something that is so special to them.
It is very hard to convey our passion into words but above all we treat people how WE would want to be treated.
As women, our care and empathy come naturally – we can put our arms around a widower and give him the reassurance that his wife has been cared for and dressed by our lady only team (for couples who have been married for 60 or so years, this can be so important) Just the smallest attention to detail such as styling their loved ones hair correctly or putting on a favourite lipstick or perfume – can leave a lasting and comforting memory.
Because we make such incredible connections with people, there is no bullshit around death, everyone is very real.
I was introduced by one woman from a family as her ‘temporary best friend’, this sums it up perfectly I think. I aim to be that lovely mate who is practical and prepared to get stuck in and help with everything. But also to gently hold whatever feelings come up, the grief is fairly expected, it’s the anger and the guilt and so on, they need more skilful holding.
I cry at every funeral.
I became interested after my Mam passed away. She was 86 and wanted to plan her funeral, asking us to contact the same undertaker we had used when Dad died. Basically she did not like the coffins he now offered, she referred to them as 4 tatty bits of wood, and said she deserved better and “wasn’t it the same brochure he had shown her 11 years ago”! To be honest we were a bit embarrassed, but the FD didn’t offer any others so she just had to choose one.
We didn’t know there were alternatives or that we should have ‘shopped around’, we just settled. It left me feeling that we didn’t give her the send off she wanted, it was a compromise.
Then both of my sisters lost their husbands, one was a huge Elvis fan. After arranging a traditional funeral my sister told me that she would have loved an Elvis themed funeral, why didn’t she do it? “who would have provided that” she said? That got me thinking, there had to be something better.
I set about researching the industry, it took 18 months, many phone calls to the Good Funeral Guide and the Natural Death Centre. The Natural Death Handbook provided the inspiration I needed. Finally I opened in September 2012.
Do I provide too much choice? To be honest I would prefer that any day to a family ‘settling’ for something they really didn’t like or want. Each day is different each family unique and I love that!
In answer to your question about what it means to me….it’s simple. To help people at a time when they need help. To listen to clients and give them exactly what they want. For me and my staff to be the very best we can be.
All these things mean the huge companies will have to try and keep up with me and not the other way around.
When my family’s funeral firm got sold to a large corporation I found that my morals were compromised and the only way to be true to myself was to start my own business.
I thrive on the challenge of constantly improving our offerings and we constantly ask ourselves “How could we improve this?”. Of course we are a business, and we make money, but we also do funerals for homeless people for free. We provide memory boxes, teddy bears and books on bereavement to schools, libraries, churches and any bereaved family that needs them, and that makes me really proud.
We try to blaze the trail and if other funeral directors decide to copy us, then all well and good,that means the bar has been raised throughout the profession as a whole. I teach the Diploma in Funeral Directing as well – If I can influence people all over the country, sowing seed here and there, you never know what will grow!
Most of all I like it when staff say that working for me has changed their life, or a family are able to come in and pay their bill because we helped them fight the Department of Work and Pensions for the bereavement benefits that they didn’t know they were entitled to. And of course we never complain when families send us chocolates telling us what a great job we did!
‘Why do I do it?’
“I love my job serving my community as a funeral director! The work is varied, interesting and sometimes creative; but mostly the satisfaction of helping families is where the meaning lies for me. I left the funeral profession for a number of years and had a glamorous job as an entertainer travelling all over the world. I pined for my funeral work.
Now I’m back to my vocation and all is well.”
The only regret is that I didn’t come into it earlier in my life. I have been so privileged to meet such wonderful families, to guide them through a very special farewell. ‘A good funeral’ is probably one of the most important events, and of course it is the last gesture that can be done for a loved one. There is no practise and no rehearsal, but so many small and personal things can be done, which does help the grieving process.
I don’t see myself as direct competition with traditional funeral directors as I specialise in Woodland funerals, biodegradable coffins, hand made bespoke shrouds, and floral tributes from the hedgerow.
I have now arranged and conducted cremations, something I didn’t anticipate.
It is wonderful to see how more people are talking and being pro-active in planning their funerals and are so much more aware of the environment. The importance of knowing they, as a family, are in control. Not the funeral director.
I can’t say where the idea of becoming an undertaker stemmed from but, like a lot of people in this line of work, I’ve been interested in death for as long as I can remember. It took me 20-odd years of working in secretarial roles before I finally found an admin job in a local independent funeral home. Within 6 months I knew that I wanted to open my own business.
So after putting myself on a few courses (and a visit to the bank) my funeral company was formed. Now, after 2 years, I can certainly attest to the fact that it’s different from any other job out there, and I couldn’t be more pleased that I took the plunge. It’s not about being sombre or morbid, but being able to be empathetic and respectful of people’s requests, whatever they may be. It’s much more rewarding than most people think – and it’s OK to have a sense of humour, in fact it’s an absolute necessity!
I grew up in a traditional funeral directing family whose view was that it wasn’t a profession for girls.
In my late teens I witnessed two horrific car accidents and their aftermath. At this point I realised that there might not be a tomorrow.
I care deeply for people and in my heart simply want to help everyone avoid unsuitable, formulaic funerals. Giving out information and enlightening people is really satisfying.
Because I wanted to help people take creative control of their funerals. I believe we should all be able to have a meaningful funeral at an affordable cost.
I also wanted to offer a kind and personal experience, one which would take some of the fear out of the process of visiting an undertaker. The stone-masonry in the window, all the black. I want to help people see that it doesn’t have to be that way. We visit people at home, on their terms and give them all the time they need.
I think this is unbelievably important work and it’s an honour to be able to do anything we can to help people get what they want and need.
Although known for my direct cremation service I provide a full funeral service too.
I strive to bring fairness to the industry. Is it right that families are having to shop around in a distressed state and in these difficult financial times?
It gives me great pleasure when families realise they have got exactly the full service that they want but for half the price of a high street undertaker. I never tell a family they have to do something or can’t have something else.
I work tirelessly and passionately to breakdown barriers, doors and false pomp in the world of funerals.
My company, now in its 10th year, has deservedly earned its reputation as the most forward thinking, natural and holistic. We offer a fully inclusive service where the bereaved can be involved in all aspects of preparing for the funeral. This really does mean no closed doors, rather, informed support and honesty to assist people in all aspects of the funeral process that are important to them. This could be the collection of their loved one from hospital, to gently dressing the body, to carrying the coffin on the day of the ceremony.
My company owned by women and run by women, with the support of just a few lovely men. Women do everything. We don’t have different people taking on different roles, which means that the person there for you in the middle of the night, gently collecting your loved one, is likely to be the same woman who helps you with the arrangement and who will be supporting you on the day of the funeral.”
Ever since I first stepped through a funeral director’s door as part of a work-experience placement while still at school, I KNEW that this was exactly what I wanted to do. Working in a small, family-based business with a like-minded team means that we aren’t subject to any boundaries when it comes to putting specific details into place. Whether we conduct very traditional funerals, or just provide a little assistance for those arranging a funeral themselves, I love the interaction with family members and the ongoing relationship which that process so often brings about.
You can find contact details for all these wonderful folk on the net or on the Natural Death Centre’s website.