There are some things you should always remember, like your mother’s funeral for example. For the last twenty years I’ve been trying to remember mine.
I’ve attended other family funerals since then, and each time I’ve experienced the same thing – a strange detachment, a sense of the surreal. None of these experiences felt like anything anyone in my family would ever take part in – the clothes, the big cars, the vicars I’d never met before, the unquestioning following of rules… As a family I think we have our own ideas about how things should be done which make us who we are, our own in-jokes and small rituals. But mention a funeral and suddenly we’re contracting out the most important and significant moments to be planned and carried out by strangers. These funerals could have belonged to anyone.
Surely this could be different? Surely my family wasn’t completely unique?
I’ve had a variety of roles over the last twenty years; my last was helping people set up and mobilise social enterprises. The sense of empowerment people felt when they benefited from these projects was overwhelming, but this funeral thing just kept rolling around in my head.
Eventually I talked about it in the pub. Spurred on by my friends I went online and Googled “How to become a funeral director”. Blimey- this business is impenetrable! Looks like you need to be born into it!
I spoke to Simon at Green Fuse who suggested a celebrant training course as a “way in”. It felt like something I could do. I like helping people and I’m not scared of speaking in public.
I didn’t get to do that course. My beautiful daughter was diagnosed with a very serious illness on the day I was due to travel – all plans went on hold for two and a half years.
She’s better now, thank goodness, but several of the children we got to know in hospital never got better. Those families are the ones who really need a service that is human and kind, and more importantly, led by them. The idea that these families would hand their dead child to a stranger to “look after” before a funeral just nagged at me. Hospices offer alternatives that genuinely promote healing. Could that be made possible for everyone who wants it? Could I help people to do that? What if we gave people information about what is possible? Would they still make the same choices?
I read the Natural Death Handbook and went to the Good Funeral Awards in 2013. I was not part of this business but I looked around and I spoke to people and I realised this was my place: that these thoughtful, passionate and very funny people were my new tribe. And nobody thought my vague plans about doing “something” in Birmingham were mad: quite the opposite.
Fast forward to the Good Funeral Awards 2014 in Birmingham. I’ve got to know the organisers, have been flyering round the streets of Bournville, talked about them on local radio. I’m part of this tribe now…
I now have my own undertaking business. A brilliant lady named Fran Glover came into my life socially several years ago. Fran runs her own marketing company, is passionate and driven and just GETS this. She took my vague ideas about doing something and fashioned it into a plan, one that made sense. She gave me numbers and dates and ambition.
The name ‘A Natural Undertaking’ came from a friend during a pub quiz. Sadly we didn’t win the quiz but the name just seemed right. Death, whilst painful and sometimes unexpected is after all a natural and normal part of life.
I’d made good use of the previous twelve months with some amazing work experience.
I had seen the art of the possible at Clandon Wood natural burial site, I learned practical stuff about trolleys, transport and kindness.
I spent time with Clare at VW funerals, Lucy at the Independent Funeral Company, the wonderful Sarah and Lel at Wallace Stuart.
I picked the huge brain of Charles Cowling at the Good Funeral Guide over cups of coffee.
I attended Death Salon in London and found that this tribe is International.
I ran Birmingham’s first Death Cafes: gathering a bunch of strangers above a pub on the sunniest afternoon to talk thoughtfully and humorously about death.Our cardboard coffin decorating party will probably go down as the strangest calendar event of the year. We held this for friends and family to show them what we’re trying to do. People just don’t talk about death – almost as if talking about it will make it happen. Of course it will, to all of us, and there’s a big difference when everyone else knows your wishes. We engaged our friends through art and food. And of course all the kids wanted to lie in the coffin!
I also got a job with a major funeral directing chain. I lasted one day. They didn’t want me. I didn’t want to be there. This isn’t about complaining that things are wrong as they are. They’re not. Lots of families get the funeral and experience they want. But this experience proved to me that there was a huge need to provide a service to people like me, and my family. People who want more control and say over what happens to a body when someone dies, and how they should remember their friends and relatives.
And so to the Good Funeral Awards 2014. We got a call. It’s our first funeral and we’re surrounded by the best in the business. We asked for their help and advice and they gave it. Ru and Claire from the Green Funeral Company, Barbara Chalmers from Final Fling, Charlotte Graham, Lynne Watson, Jonathan Howell, Clare VW and Evelyn Temple, Charles Cowling and Rosie Inman-Cook. These people really are the best.
The funeral and the moments running up to that point were exactly what the family wanted. It felt so good to be part of something so important.
So now we really are undertakers: we have a beautiful (white) vehicle, a website (www.anaturalundertaking.co.uk) that we think is welcoming and informative and a big pile of leaflets to help spread the word around Birmingham.
We are filling a gap in the market. We won’t sell you anything you don’t need, or want. We will help you with the practical aspects if you want us to. We’re trained to help people to look after their own dead at home if they want to and partnered with a local independent funeral director, if they don’t. We can introduce suppliers who are different, ethical, unusual, and our fees are the same whatever product or supplier you use.
It’s A Natural Undertaking.