Tracy O’Leary. And she’s a Green Funeral Director, not just a Funeral Director. The whole story of Woodland Wishes is an organic one; Tracy didn’t have a grand plan or ambition to take on the world of undertaking, but instead gradually realised that helping families with the practical side of organising funerals in a relaxed and informal way was what she wanted to do.
With a background in sales and secretarial work, Tracy took some time at home when she had her daughter, and then found a role supporting a local charity, WinterComfort that worked with homeless and vulnerably housed people, and had set up a social enterprise teaching their clients the craft of making eco willow coffins. It was during this time that Tracy became friends with Roger Fowle, the local professional basket maker who was the tutor for Winter Willow.
Tracy’s role was to spread the word about Winter Willow among funeral directors, and so she spent her time travelling around visiting undertakers across a wide area and trying to encourage them to support the brilliant Winter Willow initiative by offering the eco coffins to the families who engaged them. Despite the general lack of interest from the funeral industry, Tracy found herself fascinated by the previously hidden and secret world that she had hitherto known nothing about.
The resistance from established high street funeral directors led Tracy to explore alternative ways of promoting the Winter Willow coffins, and she made contact with a local natural burial ground and went to visit them. This opened her eyes to a whole new way of carrying out funerals, a simple, natural and gentle alternative to the heavily Victorian influenced events that had been her only previous experience of a funeral.
Gradually, Tracy began helping families who wanted to manage most of the funeral themselves, and her first experience of seeing a person who had died was almost accidental. “I had offered to help a family who wanted to look after their mum themselves but who needed a driver,” she said, “We got to the hospital to collect her and they wanted their mum to be dressed in her own clothes. The mortuary staff had never had a family turn up wanting to do this, and the family were so upset they didn’t feel that they could do it themselves so I just offered to dress their mum for them. And then we got her into her coffin and drove her to the burial ground and I helped them lower her into the grave, and it all just felt so right and natural.”
The Winter Willow social enterprise sadly ran out of funds, and Tracy’s role there came to an end, but her new venture into undertaking began to grow, and she gradually found herself helping more and more families. “It’s something that just happened to me organically, it feels such a natural thing to do,” she says.
The practicalities of caring for dead people were a problem in the early days; none of the local funeral directors were prepared to help her by letting her pay for space in their mortuaries, she was met with a point blank ‘No’ from all of them, but eventually she tried a company in Ipswich who immediately agreed to assist her. Tracy always explained to families that she would be taking their relative to a friend’s premises to care for them until the funeral date, and travelled back and forth to Ipswich to deliver and collect them.
One day, Tracy was speaking on the radio about doing funerals in a more natural way, and how she was looking for premises locally, and a former client of Winter Willow happened to hear her. He was a farmer from Cambridgeshire whose wife had died in 2010, and he contacted Tracy and suggested she come back to the farm where he had an outbuilding that was available. Woodland Wishes had found a home.
Gradually Tracy equipped the converted stable in the middle of the fens with everything she needed, buying everything second hand. She learned how to use a hoist and a scissor lift and has everything set up so that she can look after the people in her care without any assistance. She is entirely self sufficient, doing everything herself, but she has trusted friends who she can call on to assist her if required, including Roger, the basket maker who often helps out if he’s needed.
The setting is perfect, Wood Walton is located amid the rolling fields and countryside of Cambridgeshire, and the organic farm is alive with bees and butterflies. A mystical wood henge can be glimpsed through the open door, trunks of peat wood aligned to the solstice standing tall in memory of the farmer’s wife. Families visiting Tracy often go and walk in the henge and ground themselves, re-connecting with the natural world at a time of turmoil and change when death has shattered the status quo, and some families have chosen to hold open air ceremonies in the centre of the henge, with the coffin by a fire in the centre.
Tracy has made her space in the building beautiful; sofas surround a low coffee table in the centre of the room, walls are decorated with simple natural artifacts and paintings and the light and airy feeling is complemented by fresh flowers and incense. Next door is the space where dead people are cared for, a small preparation area doubling up as a cosy space where families can sit with the coffin. A kitchen and small bathroom provide the necessary comforts that enable the building to be used for arranging funerals, spending time with a loved one or indeed holding a small ceremony. Outside, the only reminder of the hustle and bustle of life is the sound of an occasional passing train, otherwise birdsong is the only sound in this quiet and peaceful place.
It has Tracy’s touch all over it, feminine, simple and soft without being flowery. Tracy herself is utterly natural and normal. She doesn’t wear black suits or a uniform, a brightly printed dress is far more her style, and she is amused at the reaction she gets when she arrives at a crematorium where the dress code is unfailing formal for other undertakers.
From the early days, Tracy has been determined to offer families a different way of doing funerals, whether they choose a burial or a cremation. She is completely transparent in everything she does, with nothing making her happier than seeing families realise that they can save money and have a far more personal and intimate funeral by crafting it themselves. She rarely uses bearers any more, encouraging families to be involved themselves, and her Volvo estate car is used for 99% of her funerals. She has a hand pulled bier for woodland funerals and again, families take ownership of their funerals by pulling the coffin along together.
Her premises can be used free of charge for small gatherings, furniture is just shifted out of the way so the coffin can be central, and she works with outstanding Humanists and other celebrants who share her ethos and who will tailor the ceremony to the individual family’s needs. Rather than orders of service, Tracy suggests bookmarks as a keepsake – “If you’re not having hymns, where it helps to have the words in front of you, what’s the point of an order of service?” she says, “It just gets put in a drawer afterwards, you don’t want to throw it away but you don’t look at it again. A bookmark is something that you’ll keep using; it’s much, much cheaper and is a far better thing to have. Well, that’s what I think anyway.”
Woodland Wishes is all about simplicity, but with quality. Tracy’s attention to each family is total, and it is Tracy who will be the one person you speak to and deal with from start to finish. She will care for the person who has died herself, place them in their coffin and load the coffin into her car to bring to the funeral. There is no pomp or ceremony; the coffin is always in place ready for the family on the day of the funeral – there’s no grand arrival. If it’s a cardboard coffin Tracy will bring pens along, so that personal messages can be written on it, and she encourages families to bring flowers from their gardens to place on top. “You don’t have to spend a fortune to have a beautiful funeral.”
A personal service from start to finish by a woman who cares, who wants to make a difference and who leaves people smiling. Funerals with a more female touch; softer, personal, more intimate gatherings. Earth friendly product alternatives. Clearer pricing. Talking openly about death, dying and planning your own demise.
Everything. Tracy doesn’t try to be like other undertakers. She is completely herself, and although her USP is simple and bespoke green funerals in woodland burial sites, she carries out direct cremations and other types of funerals according to each family’s choice. She encourages families to do away with unnecessary expenses and can keep costs to a minimum by doing everything herself. She’ll help with everything, even doing washing up after a reception when guests have left. “I’m like the Basil Fawlty of funerals, I do it all!”
Tracy’s ethical and passionate approach is genuine, she’s a straightforward, down to earth single mum, a practical and honest woman who is invariably described as ‘lovely’ in the many testimonials and thank you letters from families she has helped. She brings a refreshing female, caring approach to a hitherto male dominated business and has been instrumental in offering hundreds of families a simpler more personal experience when someone close to them dies.
We love Tracy’s way of doing funerals. She is genuinely one of the nicest people you will meet, and has brought a fresh new approach to the dark and mysterious business of undertaking.
There’s nothing hidden here, no peculiar language or form filling, no dusty plastic flowers or imposing memorials; everything about Tracy and Woodland Wishes is open, honest and ethical. You may find Tracy’s eight-year-old daughter with her on funerals or at her premises when you visit, her mum is happy for her to learn that death is ok to be around.
That just about sums up Tracy’s ethos; Woodland Wishes is a breath of fresh air in the world of funerals.
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.