The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Britain’s Youngest Undertaker

Thursday, 15 September 2011


Posted by Charles


Did you see Britain’s Youngest Undertaker on BBC3? It’s on the iPlayer and it’s worth a look

It’s a documentary which follows Mike Ryan’s funeral business in Newport through the awkward experiment of testing the vocation and aptitude of his younger daughter, Rachael. For Mike, this is all about legacy. He’s sixty and his health is poor, exacerbated by his irascible, control-freak temperament. He’s into succession planning. There are shades of King Lear in the scenario, and Rachael has much in common with Cordelia. Not that the film is a tragedy by any means. But there’s an underlying melancholy emanating from Mike, a difficult man whom I very much took to. Not an easy man, but a man of integrity.  

Rachael begins her apprenticeship as soon as she leaves school, a stroppy, pretty, spoilt (by Mike’s own admission) teenager. She has much of her father about her. She is put through her paces. She does grotty stuff, stocktaking coffins; she does difficult stuff, observing an embalming; and finally she gets to conduct a funeral, and she does just fine. She grows from arsey minx to thoughtful young woman. All will be well and Mike can heart-attack happy in the knowledge that all he’s built will go on. A lot of people will feel Rachael is too young. I don’t know that I am persuaded of that.

I don’t suppose there are many in the funeral trade, as Mike unsparingly terms it, who would have sat through this film oozing approbation. If Mike has made any money he’s certainly not reinvested much in his premises. There’s not a lot of peace, perfect peace about the place. There’s a moment when Mike cries out SHIT! from the ‘chapel of rest’, where he’s struggling with shirtsleeves and going off on one in front of a dead person.

Mike inhabits the type of a particular sort of undertaker. There are lots like him. Old school, for sure. For Mike it’s all about logistics and getting to the crem on time. He’s a fine-detail man. He comes over as impatient and obsessive. He treats everyone the same. But you can see that he’s got a heart of gold. I liked the way he greeted the family who come to ‘view’ in his jeans. No bullshit, not many words, but humanity for sure.

And this, I guess, is the plain way they do things in Newport. For everything that Mike might be perceived not to be, he is the product and servant of the culture of Newport. And that, I would say to critics, is actually the point.

Watch Britain’s Youngest Undertaker here.

Find the Ryans’ website here. Do read the comments.  

22 comments on “Britain’s Youngest Undertaker

  1. Graham ketch Dip,FD M.B.IE

    Friday 20th June 2014 at 9:24 pm

    Any one can watch an embalm or wear a black suit or walk in front of a hearse pass the exams and prove you know what your doing,

  2. Vale

    Wednesday 28th September 2011 at 11:11 pm

    Really glad you’ve posted, Julie. I watched the programme with interest and a good deal of respect for Mike and his daughters, but I had worried about the families involved and whether the TV people had pushed them into getting involved. It’s good to hear that it was all done properly and with full consent and that you felt properly supported on the day. Thank you.

  3. Julie

    Wednesday 28th September 2011 at 1:04 pm

    Hello. Can I just let you know that the funeral showed in this program was for my great aunt. The family were kept informed of everything, gave relevant permission and the crew filmed from such a discreet distance that we barely noticed they were there. The girls were very professional and their dad should be proud of them. They did a great job for our family on a sad day. I just wanted somebody to know the family’s point of view. We were proud to have been asked to take part.

  4. Tuesday 20th September 2011 at 5:06 pm

    We wear jeans throughout the entire process, sometimes, though not often, even wearing them conducting the funeral and while taking the service. The idea that throwing on a (rarely) clean cheap suit is what amounts to a show of respect for the dead is everything that is wrong with the ‘trade’.

    I agree with Andrew Plume, as he says, however scruffy the premises may be, at least everything is happening there. His remarks about aircraft hangers on industrial estates is no exaggeration.

  5. andrew plume

    Monday 19th September 2011 at 5:14 pm

    ………..and reverting to my earlier post today, I’ve just run through some figures (mainly for my own interest)to see whether Mike and Daughters could remotely ‘be making a buck’ here

    on, say 150 a year and growing, removing the costs of the three full time male staff, the overheads, the expansion next door and for providing a reserve for the cost of, say new vehicles (which is probably in mind), I would have thought that there wouldn’t have been much more than £70K (pre-tax) for Mike and his daughters, which isn’t a vast amount, particularly compared to what the elder daughter would have been earning if she was still employed in the banking industry. Let’s not overlook the fact that Mike may well be doing approx 150 a year now but it was only 4 in year one, so it’s probably only been in the more recent years that it’s becoming a more mature business. Finally, nothing was said but i’d be very surprised if Mike believed in anything other than his own cash for ongoing improvements/expenditure in his business

  6. andrew plume

    Monday 19th September 2011 at 5:05 pm

    “….If Mike has made any money he’s certainly not reinvested much in his premises…”

    Charles, which I’ve quoted from your very decent intro – my take is, is that his premises sit quite comfortably into the surrounding area, i.e. fairly average architecture and probably not a prosperous area either and it probably makes their clients feel at ease too….

  7. andrew plume

    Monday 19th September 2011 at 11:44 am

    an excellent programme and thanks for showing it Charles – Mike Ryan may have come across ‘as scruffy’ in the odd shot but he was presenting a human touch – whatever anyone may feel, a strong independent with increasing business is very important anywhere in the UK – as with most small independent firms, all of the actual business is conducted on the premises and not in an aircraft style hanger on a faceless industrial estate in the middle of nowhere……..there was an awful lot of care taken pre the actual service and I do not feel that this was a show for the cameras either. I’m sorry Zoe that I simply cannot agree with your ‘cheap buck’ comment – look at the figures, it’s taken a great number of years to build this business up and it wouldn’t have been much more than a break even situation for the first few years. As for the publicity, well he has two pretty daughters, there’s no issue with that, it’s just the way that it’s panned out – anyhow if he didn’t have any children then he would be faced with selling out to yet another ‘faceless corporate’. What potential clients of this business have awaiting them, is the personal family touch – no impersonal funeral arrangers here or a funeral director who one only meets at the Crem. This business will prosper

  8. Jonathan

    Monday 19th September 2011 at 9:06 am

    Jon, er, why what? Smart young people getting involved is good news from my perspective too, so that’s not it.

    Why not learn to paint the same old painting your dad paints 150 times a year, though, I should have thought was obvious? What a funeral needs to be like and who needs to be conducting it – well, that to me sounds like asking the same of a painting.

    I must have missed your point, Jon.

  9. Monday 19th September 2011 at 7:26 am

    Very good to hear from you, Zoe. Thank you for going to the trouble of writing such an interesting comment. Yes, Mike does have an eye for publicity, doesn’t he? And that can be a double-edged sword. I guess everyone who watched reckoned Louise to be outstanding and overlooked. As for Mike — well, he’s Marmite, isn’t he?

  10. Zoe Potts

    Monday 19th September 2011 at 2:43 am

    I’ve just *watched* this, should’ve read, sorry for edit

  11. Zoe Potts

    Monday 19th September 2011 at 2:42 am

    I’ve just this. What an excellent programme showing that an unusual career choice. How heartwarming that the final family wanted her to direct. Having that said that, I would strenuously recommend the father rushes through Rachael’s daughters training and leave the business to be run by the older daughter, Louise, with Rachael as an apprentice, in all honesty. He’s built it up, yes, but after this I highly doubt he will get much more business. If I were confronted by him (wearing JEANS for a viewing of all things???????? how disrespectful, did he come from the newly bought shop next door doing carpentry 2 minutes before maybe?) I would run a mile. I’ve been in post mortems etc at 15 yrs old, and yes humour gets you through, and is pretty much a prerequisite in such tough jobs as this, that’s forgiveable. His general attitude, however, stinks of quick buck and cheap publicity. The elder daughter seems switched on and more than capable, hand the reins to her fast. The 2 daughters, given the chance, would have far more aplomb I think. Both seem to have a natural empathy, despite tender years, I would certainly have either of those than the scruffy, disrespectful Dad in all honesty. Good luck to both girls, let’s hope this docu doesnt end the family business almost before it’s started and they have something to work with.

  12. Sunday 18th September 2011 at 12:29 pm

    Ah, you are quite right, Saint. Thank you for pointing this out. I am sorry to be so slow in acknowledging you – the website server has been down.

  13. The Saint

    Saturday 17th September 2011 at 9:29 pm

    Hi, i saw a comment from Janice of huddersfield and Alan of wolverhmpton. One minute there and the next minute gone. Also Stephen from somerset post number 1 and Nicola from merseyside.
    If you read through the comments still there they name the at least two people that have commented and now vanished.
    Suppose its a free world though?

  14. Saturday 17th September 2011 at 7:56 pm

    @ jonathan: Why? Funerals are everyday business and smart young people getting involved is good news from my perspective.

    I’m interested in learning about what a funeral needs to be like and who needs to be conducting it from yours.

  15. Jonathan

    Saturday 17th September 2011 at 7:04 pm

    This was clearly not seen by the producers as a way of portraying the funeral profession but of using it as a backdrop for their titillating story. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise because Rachael’s gaucheness would have been eclipsed by serious consideration of death rituals – not sexy at all.

    She did okay leading a funeral in the end, in the way of her father; but what’s so okay about the daughter learning to repeat the old ways of the father? Where will Newportian funerals be when she’s his age? One can only hope experience will lead her outwards and not inwards.

    TV at its worst, whatever we may think of Mike Ryan and his heart (attacked or not).

  16. Saturday 17th September 2011 at 6:38 pm

    Thanks for calling in, Saint. Good to hear from you. I’ve been following the comments on the Ryan site and am not aware of any having been removed. What evidence do you have?

  17. The Saint

    Saturday 17th September 2011 at 5:42 pm

    Look at there comments. Funny all the critical comments have been removed from there site!!!
    What was it he said. One wrong move and this business could be finished? It certainly did not do anything for the rest of the profession.
    Just a cheap bid for publicity!!!

  18. Saturday 17th September 2011 at 7:35 am

    Watched the whole programme and found it entertaining and engaging. I’d happily have either of Mike Ryan’s daughters conduct my funeral.

  19. Friday 16th September 2011 at 10:36 pm

    Unfortunately I didn’t see this programme. The following day I went to see a bereaved family who informed me that the programme “did not do our profession any favours” In fact they were very critical of what “Life experiences” a 16 year old would have, and they most certainly would have sent her on her way, had she turned up to arrange a funeral. Those of us who have worked hard to get where we are, must now work even harder to regain the confidence of those who were unfortunate enough to perhaps get the wrong impression of the Funeral Industry.

    • Don Blackmore

      Monday 3rd December 2012 at 10:43 am

      A 16 year old with no life experiences would be an insult if he or she came to my door. I would not allow cameras in on my most personal grief..

  20. Quokkagirl

    Friday 16th September 2011 at 6:40 pm

    Your ability to see through what is presented to you Charles is commendable and your precis is, as Rupert says, skillful. I’m not sure I agree with all your conclusions but this is based on gut instinct and not out of any proper thought process. I stopped watching after 15 minutes because I was starting to cringe.

    The TV producers of course ultimately decide how the the characters in any fly on the wall documentary are portrayed but even taking that into consideration I still felt it was a grim set up with too much stressing and not enough thought. That could be because the trade as Mike called it lends itself to last minute panics and seat of the pants decision making. A heart attack cocktail for sure but not necessarily a peaceful one.

    As always, Charles, great food for thought.

    Hopefully the girls will mature nicely into the profession and bring some new and interesting approaches to their work but currently I felt they had a long way to go before they had the necessary skills – and I wouldn’t want my loved ones to be dealt with by someone who had a long way to go. Good luck to them. I truly hope they do well – but not for me.

  21. Thursday 15th September 2011 at 1:47 pm

    I haven’t watched it, don’t need to after your skillful precis Charles, but I have looked at the comments on their website.
    We’re all control freaks. It’s a job that needs one. That’s not the same as being controlling.
    My god, working with your spouse is difficult enough, working with your teenage daughters is beyond heroic.
    As for swearing in front of a corpse, a while back Charles you blogged about a firm that knocked on the door of the mortuary before entering. I didn’t bite, but I just don’t believe that. Claire and I had a blazing row once while dressing a body, a task that doesn’t get easier with practice. Interestingly, while both of us aren’t believers in an afterlife, Claire more so than me, we both independently came back in to apologise. Mike sounds fine to me. Appropriate, and that’s the essence. Love the Lear ref, almost as much as I do the heart attack in peace line.

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