“No fuss? You’re absolutely sure about that? You’ve taken into account the emotional needs and expectations of your family and friends? … Yes, we have our simple package. Yes, if you’re sure it’s right for you we can do that for one nine nine five all inclusive.”
I am sipping tea in the office of Neil Bareham, Life Events Director, in a pretty market town in Kent. Never heard of a Life Events Director? That’s because Neil is the first, and I have come to find out what he’s all about.
Neil puts down the phone and instinctively pushes a box of tissues over to me.
“Funeral?” I ask.
“No, wedding. They want a no-fuss affair so we’re laying on our direct nuptials service for them. Collect them from work, transfer by Galaxy to Gretna, night in a B ‘n’ B then home. It’s a niche service, but it’s growing. They don’t want the razzamataz and the mothers-in-law but they do want a bit of romance.”
Neil began life as a funeral director but was ambitious to grow his business. He didn’t have the patience for drawn-out wars of attrition with competitors, laying siege to them by opening branches next door amid the charity shops and Cash Convertors that have colonised our defunct high streets. “Undertakers, they’re like rats in a sack” he says. “Far too many of them, all red eyes and yellow teeth, all glaring at each other. Nasty. There ought to be a cull.”
Neil’s innovative growth strategy has been vertical integration — with a twist. He says, “Undertakers think vertical integration is Dip FD jargon for burial. No imagination, that’s their problem. It was one of my celebrants who gave me the idea, actually. She does funerals, weddings, baby namings, all sorts. I thought, ‘I’m basically an event planner, I’ll have some of that.’ So I do em all, now, all life events. Funerals and weddings, mostly, but we’ll do anything. Latest thing is home removals. Shift their stuff, get it all in for them, then em-cee the housewarming. Get all their friends over, drive the missus up in a limo and he carries her over the threshold — or one of our men can do that for him. Yes, make a bit of a thing of it. People need a bit of ritual when their world’s made new, you know.”
He uses the same grey-uniformed staff, the same silver-grey vehicles for most of his events. “Sometimes you forget which one you’re doing,” he says. “But if you’re walking up an aisle and everyone’s in tears, you know it’s a wedding.”
Neil sees himself as the cool logistical head who restores order to people’s lives “when they’re a bit doolally — when they can’t think straight.” Death, birth, love, divorce, redundancy, retirement: these and other major life events bring on, he says, mild to severe derangement, calling for empathetic supervision by a skilled third party. “Come unto me all ye whose minds are all over the place,” he says, “outsource it all to nice uncle Neil. Sorted.”
Wedding planners, he feels, have been getting it wrong for far too long. Wedding traditions compel families to do more than they can cope with — it spoils their day. Everyone’s happier if they can just turn up and have it all done for them. So Neil now plays the part of the father of the bride and leads her up the aisle while his pallbearers carry the bridal train. Neil’s role is ceremonial. Once he’s delivered the bride to the vicar he makes a discreet exit and may well go straight on to a funeral, leaving a specialist team in charge to ensure the smooth running of the event, returning for the cutting of the cake. Neil has teams for all occasions.
Neil is in reflective mood today. “People just won’t talk about it before it happens, that’s the big problem nowadays,” he muses. “Then, when it does happen, it hits them like a thunderbolt.” “Death?” I ask. “No. Love,” he says, gazing into the middle distance. “Death too, of course. All of these big life events.”
“The expense” he says. “The debts people run up, the loan sharks…” “Yes,” I agree, “funeral poverty is a growing problem…” “No, I’m talking weddings,” he says. “Yeah, funerals too, of course — but they’re a lot cheaper.”
“It could happen any time, you know. People just don’t seem to realise that. We as a society need to face up to it, put money aside for it. But they say, ‘I’ve got a bit longer yet, I’ll do it tomorrow’. “Funerals?” I say. Neil says, “Yeah, them as well. But we never know when we’re going to fall in love, do we? People say ‘I’m not going to get married til I’m 29’. Next thing they know, wham. When it happens they’re no longer in any fit mental state to make responsible financial decisions.” Neil proudly shows me his wedding pre-payment brochure with a variety of payment options. “Silver Charter, I call it, all monies safely invested. Actually, it’s not regulated by the FCA but they don’t need to know that. That last bit is off the record, by the way.”
I bring him back to funerals. How’s business? His principal competitor was a thriving sixth generation family business. It was wound up two months ago. “Flat on its arse. Even FSP didn’t want it.”
“I didn’t put them out of business, my customers did,” says Neil, “and I’ll tell you for why. The big change around here is that I am there for the people of this town in all the changing seasons of their lives. We marry them, move house for them, name their children and bury their dad. We don’t carry any stigma. We’re one of them. We become family friends. When I was a funeral director I lived on the margins of this town — my next door neighbour could’ve been the public hangman. Now I’m right in there next to its beating heart.”