Posted by Richard Rawlinson
I’m posed with a dilemma here, a choice between topicality or taste.
Oh, publish and be damned. Forgive the timing in this, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year, to raise the subject of Her Majesty’s official undertakers, Leverton & Sons, a 200-year-old family firm of funeral directors that has served London for eight generations.
As you’d expect from such a distinguished company, discretion is all. In fact we only know of the royal connection, bestowed by the Lord Chamberlain in 1991, because of a mention in the inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Director Clive Leverton was called upon to fly to Paris to repatriate the princess’s body on the day she died.
There’s certainly no mention of ‘By Royal Appointment’ on Leverton & Son’s website [ here ]which is modern and unstuffy, opting for one of those peaceful woodland scenes on its home page, and including a link to ‘Natural options’.
Old world credentials come to the fore, however, in the ‘Traditional funerals’ link, which leads to a fascinating essay on ‘Funeral etiquette’, written in 1922 by American socialite and manners expert Emily Post:
‘As soon as death occurs, some one (the trained nurse usually) draws the blinds in the sick-room and tells a servant to draw all the blinds of the house,’ says Post before offering this sound advice about caring for the bereaved. ‘First of all, the ones in sorrow should be urged if possible to sit in a sunny room and where there is an open fire. If they feel unequal to going to the table, a very little food should be taken to them on a tray… The cook may suggest something that appeals usually to their taste—but very little should be offered at a time, for although the stomach may be empty, the palate rejects the thought of food, and digestion is never in best order’.
Downton Abbey echoes aside, Leverton & Sons’ profile is distinctly 21st century in comparison to that of A. France & Son, the undertaker that first opened for business in Pall Mall in 1780. Now based on Lambs Conduit Street in Holborn, its glossy black façade frames a window displaying a miniature replica of Lord Nelson’s coffin, made from a piece of wood salvaged from HMS Victory no less. Its charmingly conservative, no-frills website [ here ] explains that A. France & Son provided the magnificent state coffin for Lord Nelson’s funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Other people of note to have been taken into the company’s care include Marie Lloyd (1870-1922), the cockney music hall singer famous for songs such as ‘A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good’ and ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van,’ and Cardinal Basil Hume, much-loved Archbishop of Westminster until his death in 1999.
A France and Son was even instructed by the French Government after World War II to repatriate every French serviceman killed in action in the UK. Another unusual assignment indicative of its high esteem came when the relics of St Therese of Lisieux visited the UK in 2009. The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales invited A. France & Son to take care of the casket holding the relics of the saint who was canonised in 1925.
As well as seeing these relics at Westminster Cathedral, I attended a funeral last year of an elderly Jesuit priest who was very dear to me. I noticed the small print on the order of Service read: ‘Thanks to A. France & Son Funeral Directors’. I haven’t considered a pre-paid funeral plan yet but I know where I’d go if did. Oh, and ‘ad multos annos’, Your Majesty.
Footnote: for Emily Post’s full 1922 essay on death etiquette, see here
I always hold in having it if you fancy it
If you fancy it, that’s understood
And suppose it makes you fat – I don’t worry over that
‘Cos a little of what you fancy does you good!