ARKA Original Funerals are undertakers with a difference.
One of the pioneers in challenging the traditional, patriarchal rigidity of the funeral industry in early days of this century, ARKA is widely recognised and admired by the new wave of modern funeral directors as a role model of how to provide alternative choices for bereaved people.
The all-women team is led by the inspirational Cara Mair, who founded the company in 2003 and has been at the heart of ARKA since then as principal funeral director and consultant. A former veterinary nurse who also worked in social care, Cara was drawn to the industry after the death of her mother in 1998, when she recalls leaving the funeral ceremony and thinking ‘what did they actually do?’ about the funeral directors who had been involved.
She applied for a position with a large funeral company as a driver / bearer and was successful – unusual for a woman in those days – and from her time working behind the scenes realised that much of what went on out of sight of the public was absolutely not what should be happening.
Cara founded ARKA to do funerals the way she felt they should be done, in a supportive and creative way, with the care of the person who has died at the heart of everything, and with family involvement in the creation of a unique ceremony welcomed and assumed to be the norm rather than an anomaly or an inconvenience.
Cara believes in empowering people through information so that they can make informed choices. “We work alongside people rather than dictating what they should do,” and in providing a beautiful space where there is no pressure to rush into making decisions.
Ethical, honest and strongly environmentally aware, Cara’s values underpin the way her business is run. There is a feeling of serenity about her that is immediately reassuring, and her awareness of the importance of beautiful surroundings is intrinsic to both of the ARKA premises.
Cara’s ‘team’ ethos seems to magnetise new members: there has been no active recruitment process, because the right people simply gravitate towards working here. A long-time enthusiast for ARKA, Sarah Clarke-Kent has a background in HR and social care and joined the team in 2011 as a business manager as well as funeral director. When not thinking about funerals, Sarah looks after her chickens and plays the accordion.
Both Cara and Sarah are based at the Islingword Road branch, where they are supported by funeral assistant Hannah Bywaters. Over at Surrey Street, the second ARKA space is looked after by Wendy Halsted and Rebecca D’arcy who job share as funeral arrangers there. Both are ordained Interfaith Ministers, Wendy is a music therapist, and Rebecca runs her own business as a counsellor. The administration side of things is taken care of by Imke Elstner, who joined the team from a previous career working for the BBC World Service.
They don’t have a set way of doing things here and they don’t think in terms of ‘traditional’ and ‘alternative’. Every funeral arrangement begins with a blank piece of paper and they want you to take all the time you need to create the funeral you want – a funeral which is “individually designed and as unique as the person involved.”
They will then blend with your dress code, in consultation with you. It’s extraordinary what a difference this can make. Trad funeral attire can create a huge gulf between the undertaker’s staff and the mourners. You can choose from the full range of transport. ARKA’s own ‘hearses’ are two smart dark blue estate cars. On the day of the funeral they will lay silk on the floor of the car and place the coffin on top and surround it with flowers. They can easily get you a traditional hearse – or anything else you want. They’d see a request for a local bus as perfectly within their range.
There are several distinctive features to the way they do things at ARKA.
First, you will receive a highly personal service from outstandingly good people who will encourage you to go at your own pace – there’s no hurry, no pressure.
Second, you will find here all the support you need in caring for the person who has died so far as you feel able, if that’s what you want. If you wish to have the body home, they will help you with that – or you can come in and decorate the coffin. They’re all about empowerment: “We’re not here to say No!”
Third, their ethos is one of gentleness and sensitivity. This is not only reflected in their unpressured approach, but in everything they do. When Cara or Sarah come with a colleague to collect the body of a person who has died, they bring fresh sheets and a pillow. Their stretcher has a beautiful soft woollen cover that they have had specially made for them by Bellacouche. Back at Islingword Road, the mortuary area has original paintings on the wall, aromatherapy oils are used when caring for peoples’ bodies, and in all the years they’ve been carrying out funerals they have never once embalmed anyone.
Fourthly, ethics matter, so at ARKA they take environmental issues very seriously. For this reason, their specialism is green funerals – using coffins from natural and sustainable materials – and woodland burial.
Finally, ARKA have set up a support group for their customers who have experienced the death of someone close. The group runs once a month, on the last Tuesday of the month and is there for people if they feel it would help, it’s not obligatory. The group is friendly and informal and welcoming, somewhere people can come to share experiences, talk about life without that person and support each other.
ARKA is as refreshingly unlike a traditional undertaker’s as you could wish. When you go to see them you will probably find a decorated coffin in a window display that echoes the changing seasons. Inside both premises, you will find yourself in a light and airy, colourful and welcoming environment where essential oils burn and books and pieces of art surround you . These unusually decorative spaces reflect ARKA’s commitment to investing time and effort in beauty. They are known for the efforts they make to decorate the crematorium chapels with coloured textiles, candles and anything else that might reflect the person whose life is being commemorated. This tactile approach features in their Open Days, where people can hear about ARKA’s work and touch the natural coffins.
Another really important feature of they way they work arises from the skills of the staff. The ministry and counselling skills in ARKA’s funeral arranging team means that there’s a focus from the very outset on the ceremony you want to create.
First contact: During ordinary hours, your telephone call will be answered by one of the various team-members. Outside these hours, your call will almost certainly be taken by either Cara or Sarah. There’d be no question of outsourcing to a call-centre.
Home visits: No problem.
Embalming: Despite in-house expertise, Cara and the team do not recommend embalming, seeing the process as “un-environmental, intrusive and almost always unnecessary” – they’ve never had to do it. “We work in a very gentle way.” They will be happy to discuss your queries or uncertainties on this (or any other) topic.
Continuity of care: Regardless of who you meet when you first come to either ARKA branch, the funeral you are planning will be taken care of on the day (and on the run-up to it) by either Cara or Sarah: they feel that having a specific ‘point person’ avoids any confusion for you. But – thanks to ARKA’s careful pacing and their grip on everything that’s happening– everyone will know about the funerals that are in hand, and this is all part of the personal service.
You can choose to make your funeral arrangements at either of their branches. Surrey Street is the original one where ARKA first began, Islingword Road is a bigger space that is also includes the mortuary and the beautiful space through the door behind the reception where you can spend time with the person who has died. Or you can meet at home or anywhere that you prefer.
Family participation: This is gently encouraged: ARKA’s whole ethos is characterized by their recurrent use of the word ‘support’. They are clear that there’s no legal requirement for you to use either a funeral director or a minister: you can take on as much of the proceedings as you wish. You are also encouraged to consider alternative venues for the funeral: places that are relevant to the person who has died.
Same-sex person to wash and dress: Despite a proliferation of women in the business, this is no problem if it’s what you want, given the ‘lovely men’ who are on the part-time team. They are very happy for you to come in and do this yourself, if that feels right, or to do it at home: “This is a service which is often taken up.”
Ethnic specialism: They are accustomed to working with all ethnic and faith groups, and are also very willing to research anything new or unfamiliar.
Local celebrants: In addition to the Interfaith Ministers on the in-house team, ARKA are also in close contact with a range of other excellent celebrants and religious ministers in the local area and will be able to suggest someone who will work with you and them to create the ceremony you want.
Home-arranged funerals: Cara’s driving force for starting this business was the empowerment of bereaved people in the arranging of funerals. She therefore gives a resounding Yes to ARKA supporting home-funeralists in a consultative capacity: “we can’t stop ourselves!”.
They offer options for ways for you and your community to undertake the funeral yourself, if that’s what you want to do, and give you advice about how to work with funeral directors. In this way, you can clarify what the various charges are for and understand which of them have value to your particular situation. The ARKA team tend to find that people feel deeply reassured and increasingly confident when they acquire an in-depth understanding of the specific features or services they might want to consider. (Cara says she’d like there to be an ARKA in every town, so that everyone could be supported to arrive at the choices that suit them best.)
Website: The website is excellent. It seamlessly extends beyond a good description of their own services to include helpful notes of ‘advice when someone dies’.
Client support: People tend to stay in touch by email or calling in: ARKA’s ‘open door’ policy means that anybody is welcome to drop in for a cup of tea.
Money matters: The ARKA team want you to consider cost issues without any pressure. Do they encourage you to take the details home, to mull over the options they suggest, and also to shop around: “Oh, yes!” Their clear and helpful price-sheets detail the prices for burial and for cremation, and also show the varying costs at the closest local crematoria: not only in Brighton/Hove and Lewes, but also in Worthing and Eastbourne. Invoices are sent out in due course with a personal covering letter.
ARKA can readily recommend suppliers such as florists (though they make no financial gain from these recommendations), yet they’re just as keen for you to stick with the ones you may already know and like. It’s the same thing with stone-masonry: in cases where stone memorials are called for, they recommend a man whose work they admire, but see this as just one option.
Parking: Many people visit ARKA on foot or public transport: the Surrey Street shop is very close to Brighton station. Parking is possible in nearby streets around both premises. With notice, parking for one small car can be made available directly outside either branch.
ARKA is one of Britain’s most distinctive, forward-looking and intelligent funeral directors, an influential agent of change. These people are undertakers with a difference, for sure, and it’s not about being different for the sake of it; it’s about empowering their customers, while also doing everything they do as well as they possibly can. You may be surprised to see so many women in this business, but don’t be distracted by that: their sensitivity rests on a base of real strength. Cara and her team are dedicated to supporting you to create a send-off that is rich and right and real – and transformative of grief.
Any decisions you take on engaging the services of a funeral director should be based on your views and research. You should not rely solely upon the views and opinions offered by us.
Thursday 4th May 2017 at 1:48 pm
Excellent and accurate in the details. Nothing is too much trouble for Arka and having help to deal with my best friends death by them was amazing. I frequently see Cara and Sarah as I live locally in Hanover and am always welcome to drop in for a cup of tea, I attend the monthly group sessions when I can. Remarkable, friendly, professional and sincere. Unbeatable value for money and so personalised. Jan Davies
Wednesday 8th February 2017 at 3:54 pm
Arka helped us to create a farewell to Mum the way we wanted with candles, poems and garlands. Thanks so much.
Friday 3rd June 2016 at 1:42 pm
ARKA were brilliant. Cara gently guided me through all decisions and she gave me space to sort things out. She looked after my mum, Meg, and I could visit mum, laid out beautifully, whenever I wanted. She also kept me informed of the approx total cost at each stage of planning.Cara guided the service with thoughtful care and spoke beautifully. Everyone there said so. But she also stepped back allowing the family, us, to love and remember my mum. It was a touching, beautiful service and a celebration of my mums life and our love for her. I am very grateful to ARKA. The whole experience was so very comforting.
Monday 25th April 2016 at 3:48 pm
ARKA Original Funerals organised my Mum’s funeral in February. From start to finish they were absolutely lovely. Sensitive, tactful and not at all pushy they took time to really find out what we wanted and to help us through the whole process. It’s a very difficult and stressul time of course but Cara’s calming presence was a great balm and in addition she was also full of useful practical advice. Very highly recommended.
Tuesday 27th October 2015 at 2:42 pm
Arka Original Funerals and The Modern Funeral in Brighton are organising the first Brighton Death Festival happening this Saturday (31st October).
And it is free!
Here is a link to the Brighton Death Festival facebook page for all those who are interested in being informed and empowered at this community based festival
Thursday 16th July 2015 at 12:34 pm
Sarah & Wendy at ARKA organised my Mum’s burial and celebration. They helped to make the saddest occasion of my life easier and less stressful. My sister and I went to see them with a very clear idea of what our Mum would have wanted, and they made it happen exactly that way. We felt very lucky to have found them, and would heartily recommend them.
Tuesday 9th September 2014 at 9:51 pm
Cara organised the funerals of two very close friends of mine who both died unexpectedly and far too young. She and Belinda – the celebrant – helped and guided a distraught and disparate group of family and friends through the funeral preparations with sensitivity, care and love. They let us set the tone for the funeral, but made gentle suggestions and contributions when they saw the need. Both funerals were desperately sad and poignant, but were also joyous celebrations of two short-but-full lives. They got a good send off, the process was cathartic and helped us all in our grief.
It’s a bloody weird job, undertaking, but I am very glad there are people like Cara doing it.
Sunday 7th September 2014 at 1:58 am
I have worked with several funeral directors while making ‘life films’ for people’s funerals. When I met with Sarah at ARKA Original Funerals and observed how she treated the loved ones who she was supporting she was an absolute breath of fresh air; her genuine compassion and sensitivity was unlike anything else I have seen from any other funeral director. I was humbled to witness how she went to such lengths to support, inform and empower them so personally. I realise this is what ARKA is about – and speak from the heart to say Sarah is an extraordinary funeral director.
Monday 7th July 2014 at 10:38 pm
I have nothing but praise for Cara and her excellent team. I have also had the privilege to work with these remarkable ladies. What the above write up doesn’t mention is just how ‘real’ they are. Their presence is a complete reassurance at such a vulnerable time and their professionalism, passion and dedication is evident at all times. I would recommend them to anyone in a heartbeat.
Monday 7th July 2014 at 10:35 pm
I have also had the pleasure to work with Cara and her excellent team. What the write up above doesn’t mention is just how very ‘real’ these ladies are. I hear nothing but praise for them, their professionalism and the sense of relief in their presence at what is a completely vulnerable time for most. I would recommend them in a heartbeat.
Thursday 2nd May 2013 at 8:58 am
Cara and Sarah are moving the art of funeral arranging into the 21st century with passion and calmness for people and planet.Lets all move away from the Victorian style funerals that are forced upon so many of us in our hour of need..
We all need to consider the planet,even in death.leave the chipboard and veneer for the kitchen cupboards and choose an eco friendly coffin,of which there are many.
Saturday 27th April 2013 at 2:12 pm
I like the empowerment idea a lot.
Friday 26th April 2013 at 11:53 pm
Excellent review – I visited the ARKA website earlier today and the overwhelming feeling was of calm, that they will take the time needed to help, settle and soothe the bereaved through this most vital (in every sense) time.
Precious skills indeed.
Friday 26th April 2013 at 5:05 pm
They sound fantastic. Hurrah! A great review in all senses.
Friday 26th April 2013 at 3:04 pm
I have had the privilege to work with Cara and her team. They really are just lovely people carrying out a professional job with the utmost care and sensitivity. And yes, wouldn’t it be great if there was an Arka in every town !