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An Undertaker in Notts

5 August 20 illustrations: Kasia Kozakiewicz

Ever wondered what life as an undertaker is really like?

There’s no such thing as an average day in my profession, which I guess is a good starting point. As a company we’ve strived to adopt the attitude of never wanting to say no. Funerals have changed completely since I first started, and are much more personalised than they used to be – so as long as the request is legal, we’ll try and accommodate it. Take last week: I did a cremation for a family that requested a Rolls Royce, a 5am exhumation and built an underground vault, so every day brings a new challenge. This isn’t a Monday-Friday, 9-5 type of job – it’s a way of life. 

We’re a family business. My grandfather set it up with his father in 1907, but just because it’s a family business, you still need to make sure the right people are running it. My father was particularly keen that you only came to the party if you had something to offer – there were definitely no free handouts, even though I’d been helping with the business on evenings, weekends and holidays since I was twelve. But I knew I needed to get qualifications if I wanted to be part of it. After I got my A-Levels, my father told me that I was no good to him without a degree. After I got my degree, I was told that I needed to get qualifications as an embalmer and funeral director. After that, I needed to get my accountancy articles. By the time I’d finished I was 24, but it looked like the business might be closing down because my uncle wanted to retire. That’s when I decided to join the business full time, and I’ve been part of it for 55 years now. 

I don’t know if my perception of death and grief was ever the same as most people, because I’ve been around the funeral industry since I was very young. My father was on call every other night throughout my childhood, so him being out moving the body of someone who had passed away, or making arrangements for a funeral, was normal. Fortunately we don’t have the infant mortality rates that we used to, and are far removed from events like World War One, when anyone living in Sneinton, St. Ann’s or Radford would have known one or two people that died. That’s led to people growing unaccustomed to being exposed to death – but I grew up with it just being a normal part of everyday life. It doesn’t mean I’m hard or uncaring, as any death is always sad, but it’s just a natural part of life to me. 

When your children are born, you definitely do not expect to be attending their funerals. Anyone who has gone through the experience will tell you that it’s incredibly difficult to attend a child’s funeral, but I’d say that it’s just as difficult for a ninety-year-old parent to lose their seventy-year-old child. Your children are simply meant to die after you. Having children yourself is when it really hits you, and dealing with events like that becomes doubly difficult. You have to learn how to marginalise things, otherwise you simply wouldn’t be able to function. 

Someone once told me that there are two types of people: sponges and bouncing balls. If you’re a sponge, you try and soak up everyone’s grief, sorrow and problems, and it leads to you not being able to cope. But if you’re a bouncing ball, you’re able to help people with their problems without having to absorb them. I suppose you have to be in the latter category to be able to live a normal life in this business. 

You have to learn how to marginalise things, otherwise you simply wouldn’t be able to function

Some people outside of the industry might find it inappropriate, but we often use humour with each other during the day. We got a complaint about twenty years ago from a person who saw us laughing in an empty hearse. My response simply was, “Just a minute – they were telling each other jokes, they might have had Dave Allen on the TV the night before, and they were laughing about it.” They weren’t coming back from a funeral, they weren’t on their way to a funeral, and you just need to have that release valve. It’s human nature, and I think most people understand that. There’s usually more humour within services nowadays too, which helps the families cope. If the person that died had a good sense of humour then it’s good to reflect that in the service.

Generally speaking, people are at a complete loss and have a feeling of helplessness when it comes to making funeral arrangements. Our job is to serve people, but nobody ever wants to be in a position to need our services. But if you can leave a family feeling that they’ve got what they wanted for their loved one, you feel like you’ve made a difficult part of their life easier. That leaves you with a tremendous amount of satisfaction and is, without a doubt, the best part of the job.  

When you lose a loved one, a big part of the grieving process is how you say goodbye, and a big part of that is the style of the funeral. It’s our job to do everything we can to make that experience exactly as they want it. Music is incredibly evocative; even now, after almost sixty years, I’ll hear certain songs that take me back to where I was when I first heard them. Choices like that can help make the funeral more personalised. Ultimately it’s about fulfillment: we want to give people as many choices as possible, for as reasonable a price as possible. That doesn’t mean we’re the cheapest - we don’t set out to be – but I do believe we provide the best value for money. I struggle with modern terminology like ‘closure’, but not saying goodbye properly can definitely have lasting mental health problems. 

COVID has meant that the range of options available to families has been reduced, which has been really unhelpful to many of them. Grieving families need choice, and it has been difficult to work around. But like I said, every day brings me something new and a different challenge. I’m in every day of the week, except Sundays, and I have no desire to retire. I live and breathe this business, and not for the financial figures, but for the client satisfaction. That’s why, as a business, we’re still here after 130 years. 

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