Britain’s most unreasonable undertaker?

Charles Cowling

arguments

 

From an email sent to the GFG: 

Hi Charles

A friend told me about your website. She says you you like to hear about interesting funerals. Well wait till you hear about mine.

My mum died in hospital — long illness, merciful release and all that. My brother Stephen and I were determined she wasn’t going to go the way of dad and be swallowed up by the sort of undertaker who, you know, paralyses your brain with that voice they use and all that Carlson out of Downton crap, and serves up the sort of funeral that makes you think you could be at anybody’s. I rang around to see what I could suss. 

I decided to try out a chap called Geoffrey Hawkins. He sounded nice and normal on the phone, quite breezy in fact, and he didn’t tell me he was sorry for my loss, a big plus. When I went to see him – nice house – there was a notice on the door saying to go round the back. Turns out he’s an IT whizz, works from home, and just does a bit of undertaking on the side. Geoff was up a ladder fixing a climbing rose. He asked me to hold the ladder and tell him about mum. After a bit he came down and asked if I wanted a cup of tea. Or a beer. I said a beer would be nice, so we sat in the garden. I thought we’d sort out times and flowers and notices in the newspapers and a coffin for mum but instead he asked me how I wanted to feel when I got home after the funeral. He said a funeral has to justify all the time and expense by doing a job of work — it has to earn its keep. I said, It’s something you just do for christsakeHe said, Oh no it’s not, not unless there’s a good reason to. Then he set me what he called homework. Go home, talk to Stephen and anybody else, and write down what we thought was the point of having a funeral for mum and make a list of everything we reckoned we needed to do for her.

Next morning I was just about to ring him and call it all off when he rang me first to say he was going to collect mum from the hospital and was on his way to pick me up. I said, I thought that was your job. He said, She’s your mum, she’d like you and Stephen to be there for her. I said, Stephen’s had to go to work. He said, you’ll do.

I have to admit, though I was dreading it, something made me go through with it — something told me that Geoff, if certifiably mad, was somehow my kind of madman. Even though mum was in this awful body bag thing he was incredibly gentle with her. I talked to her on the way back and when we got there Geoff said well done. And he really meant it. I felt I was on a journey now and was determined to get to the end. I chose a nice wickerwork coffin for mum made by Roger Fowle. He handed me the phone and said ring him. Roger said to pop over and give him a hand if I wanted.

I asked Geoff about someone to take the service — perhaps one of those nice humanists, cos mum never went to church but she wasn’t exactly anti religion. He asked if I had made that list yet. I said not quite. He said, What’s the point of booking a humanist if you don’t know what you want to do? I reluctantly agreed we’d cross that bridge when Stephen and I had done our homework.

It went on like this. Every time I told Geoff that Stephen and I were too busy, S at work and me needing to get paperwork sorted, and the bank, etc, Geoff just said, Get your priorities sorted, the paperwork can wait, focus on mum and get some useful grieving done. He was that blunt, I always knew exactly where I was with the bugger. He said, When I ring you, that’s your priority.

He rang to say he was about to wash and dress mum, would I like to help him. I said no. He said to think about it. I said no. Then, before he could say another word I completely lost it and screamed at him to do his damn job and earn his bloody money and stop f*****g pressuring me, didn’t he understand how I was feeling? He rang back two hours later as if I hadn’t screamed at him at all to say that mum was dressed and looking lovely, but needed me to go and do her hair and nails. I went. It was some of the best time I have ever spent with her and I wished I had been there for everything, it was a totally beautiful experience that I can’t put into words. When I came out he was in the garden with a nice cold beer waiting for me. We did the paperwork for the crematorium then he said, You’ll need to pop a cheque in there and take it out to them. 

That’s when Stephen and I decided we didn’t need a humanist, we’d do it all ourselves thank you.

Geoff never let up. I told him we wanted a hearse for mum, a bit of pomp and circumstance. He said he’d got one, but Stephen and I would need to come and clean and polish it. Stephen was well pissed off about that, but I could feel there was some sort of logic somewhere. Stephen said to Geoff, I hope you’re going to dress up and walk in front of it. Geoff said you are going to walk in front of it, she’s not my mum, we need to talk about the procession.

We devised a plan — and here’s what we did. Geoff was insured for us to drive the hearse. Stephen and I picked mum up in the morning and drove her around some favourite places and spent this last precious time with her. Everyone coming to the funeral had been asked to wait just inside the gates for us to arrive. When we got there, I got out and walked in front of the hearse with mum’s grandchildren, Stephen drove, everyone else followed. It was only about 150 metres so even mum’s friends were able to cope. It felt really good. Geoff was waiting outside the crematorium and gave me a wink.

Suddenly I realised we had done nothing about about who was going to carry the coffin and I felt this surge of anger towards Geoff. He said ssh, there’s no problem, how did I want to do it? I said, Well, the usual way on people’s shoulders of course. He said fine, if you want to exclude women, children, disabled people, short people, very tall people. He was boringly right again. We all just grabbed a bit, all those closest to mum, grandkids and all and held on for dear life. It wasn’t a bit like the Thatcher funeral and there was some giggling – she would have loved it – but we got her on the caterplank or whatever it’s called. And there was this wonderful mood of togetherness and warmth among everyone. Geoff whispered to me, Nothing like a bit of creative chaos to break the ice, is there? and left us to it.

Charles, I could go on and on about how wonderful the funeral was but you haven’t got the time and I haven’t got the words yet. That’s all I can say just now. It was awesome.

Geoff’s bill was ridiculously small but, as he said, he’d done as little as he could get away with. He asked how I felt when I got home. I told him I poured myself a huge glass of wine, toasted mama in the skies and just felt GOOD. Mum ok with it? YES! He said, Are you proud? I said, YESSS! He said, Sorted, well done our kid. And he gave me a big hug.

Best regards,

Helen

PS I went and spent an afternoon with Roger making mum’s coffin. Roger rocks! 

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DavidB
Guest

I’ll be using this in my teaching, it will blow some of the students minds though. I can’t wait!

Angie McLachlan
Guest
Angie McLachlan

Made me laugh – I recognised so much of it….. people like this do exist – really they do! It’s the ones who come to them for help because someone has died who are often unable to grasp the nettle so entirely! Death is so distant and strange that it can render the grief stricken unable to partake in the simplest and most natural of practical acts…… It would be nice to think everyone would or could eact in the way that this person did to the facilitations of a ‘Geoff’ – education before the need arises is one vital… Read more »

Angie McLachlan
Guest
Angie McLachlan

Sorry that was garbled and needs editing – banana fingers on small keyboard always fatal – but you get the drift!

james showers
Guest

You’re a crafty one Charles!
I was quite rattled to think that Mr Hawkins was SO much more radical and down home than I dare – or would like – to be sometimes.

The ‘what do you want to feel at the end of the funeral’ touchstone is brilliant and very do-able.

Wouldn’t you like to be an undertaker, Charles?

Malcolm Garton
Guest

Now that’s enough!
Does he exist, its driving me mad, put everyone out of their speculative misery.
I thinks it’s made up.
The Banksey of funeral world.

David Holmes
Guest

I discussed this and other matters with my son Oliver Holmes today. We were sitting patiently, third in a queue of four undertakers at a busy hospital mortuary. Most, as ever were collecting several bodies, piling them high, if sadly not doing it on the cheap. We of course, were collecting but one person. Oliver has only been in funerals for a year or so (as seen on TV) but hopes to make a career in our world. I think he already gets it. When we had finished our chat, his conclusion? Families should look after their own. The funeral… Read more »

Chris the trainee
Guest
Chris the trainee

Food for thought indeed. I’m thinking that some of this gentleman’s magic might work. True or not, it gives me a new direction for my clients, maybe involving those who want to be involved more. Interesting.

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

Charles, you’re being suspiciously quiet about this one; but many many thanks for this enchanting tale. And thanks to Geoff, he’s my kind of wondertaker!

Vale
Guest
Vale

One of those tales that ought to be true. No, must be true. Will be true, surely.

Roger Fowle
Guest

Absolutely Fantastic ,well done Helen and good on yer Geoff, Why do we fear someones dead body when we loved the person that once occupied it ?Lets celebrate the life,its what they would want us to do.

James Hardcastle
Guest

I liked the bit about letting the family drive the Hearse.

This is so empowering for the family and one of which gives me immense satisfaction when we on-hire a self-drive hearse to a family for just this purpose.

Andrew Hickson (Kingfisher Funerals)
Guest

Crem papers ready the morning after they’re requested? Cremating one of Roger’s coffins? Apart from the minor details it’s almost believable…

Jojo
Guest
Jojo

How bloody fantastic is that. I am sure it is not made up. Who could make that up?

Tracy O'Leary, Woodland Wishes
Guest

So nice to read about a real open honest person doing all that is required and no more, letting the family be more involved, helping to make it a more meaningful but personal goodbye. Leaving a happy memory of a funeral, something Im sure we all strive for.

And yes Roger Fowle certainly does rock and so does Geoff by the sound of it !

Poppy Mardall
Guest

Something for every one of us to aspire to and live up to. I feel like punching the air right now! Also – ‘cater plank’ to be voted best addition to the understanding of death or whatever? YES! A family we have been working with thought I said we’d lift their mum onto the ‘catapult’ which is a close second.

David Holmes
Guest

Heart warming.

Sadly I am certain this is indeed made-up 🙁

But – this is the kind of undertaker I want to be.

One day!

Kitty
Guest
Kitty

Sob

Kitty
Guest
Kitty

I can’t usually be bothered to read any article longer than ten lines, but I was hanging on every word of this. I’ll cry if you tell me it’s all made up.

G M Taylor
Guest

Refreshing account of a funeral ever, Fran I’m behind you 100% ………
how laid back is this chap, a breath of fresh air in the profession, I’m taking a guess but he sounds like todays Lovejoy, should be more like Geoff but I’m sure not all the comments to follow will agree with me.
As for making the family wash and clean the hearse, Brilliant idea…..

gloriamundi
Guest
gloriamundi

Mad genius, totally sane, creative and shrewd. I’m thinking hard. I already say something about “what difference do you want this funeral to make, to you?” like his “how do you want to feel when you get home,” but there is a lot here to internalise – I’m not even an undertaker!

I’m guessing he’s smart enough to tell when his approach wouldn’t work.

Yes, special emergency award for him!

Fran Hall
Guest

This has to be the most refreshing account of a funeral ever!

Who is this Geoff Hawkins? Shouldn’t he be head tutor for all qualifications funereal??? Is it too late for him to win an award on Saturday?!