In amongst all the swirling newness of life without Steve, there is also an extraordinary amount of stuff that sits silently waiting to be attended to. The stuff that he accumulated in his life.
Mostly, it’s his clothes. Clothes are hard. Clothes are memories, of where they were bought and where they were worn and things that were done while wearing them. Clothes feature in precious photographs, linking the garment in your hands to the moment the camera captured, however long ago. Clothes absorb something of the wearer, they carry a lingering scent. Steve’s clothes carry the scent of him. I can’t smell anything at all with my post-Covid sense loss, but I know that his scent is still there. I long to smell it again. But I’ve started packing away his clothes very gradually for donating to a charity shop. I find it’s taking me far longer than I thought it would.
Some things are easy. Some things are associated with his cancer, and I don’t want them around to remind me. Pyjamas and slippers bought for hospital stays went straight into one of the first charity shop bags. All of the other things that were connected to his increasing pain and indignity went into the bin the day after he died, I needed to get rid of them, they affronted me with their existence and the fact he had needed them, and I bundled them up and out in a kind of controlled fury.
Other clothes belong to the far distant past or were easy to make instant ‘keep or throw’ decisions on. His suits, from the days when he was working at the IAM, more than a decade ago – they might find a new owner who needs to dress smartly. A ridiculous number of ties. His work polo shirts, complete with company logo – I doubt anyone will want them, but you never know. I found I could be quite pragmatic about these clothes; they weren’t strongly associated with him, with us. Shoes were easy too. What would I do with his shoes? The only ones I have kept are the ones we bought together for him when we went shopping for our wedding, beautiful, blue suede, Hugo Boss boots.
So now I have nine bags full, ready to go to the charity shop. In amongst Steve’s suits and shirts and jeans are also clothes of mine, clothes that I won’t ever wear again but had been keeping ‘just in case’ – for a future that now isn’t going to happen. Evening dresses, and cocktail dresses and smart stuff that I might have one day worn to go somewhere with him. Clothes that are too big for me now after the strain of the last year – bought when we were ‘fat and happy’ and oblivious to what was coming. Beachwear and bikinis that I wouldn’t be comfortable wearing now, without his approving and protective presence saying, ‘Who cares? You are gorgeous’ when I wondered whether it was appropriate to be parading my almost 60-year-old body on the Portuguese beach we loved so much. High heels. He loved me in them. I’m not wearing them again, not now he’s gone.
And I’ve kept just a few of his clothes. Carefully selected because they are just so him – his beautiful Jaeger black cashmere coat. Some of his linen shirts, because I’ll wear them. The jeans and shirt he wore for our wedding. His black leather jacket that he was wearing in the photo on the front of the order of service for his funeral – the order of service that wasn’t an order of service at all, just the lyrics from the music he’d chosen. His dressing gown. His T-shirts. I hope that if my sense of smell ever comes back, I’ll be able to smell his scent again on his T-shirts. His Blue Knights waistcoat that he carefully pinned all kinds of pins to, including a little prostate cancer man pin. His biker jacket that I wore to ride pillion with Lucy on the motorcycle hearse, next to his coffin. Important clothes that carry embedded within them moments to treasure and memories to cherish.
As far as the rest of his stuff, I think it will take months to go through and re-home. He has more tools than anyone I’ve ever met, and that’s without the contents of the three garages he rented. With heroic effort from Steve’s son, the ‘stuff’ that he’d accumulated and stored in the garages has now been reduced to fill just one.
The house is full of his things, bits and pieces that caught his eye and that he bought from antique shops, things that belonged to his parents, books and albums, memorabilia from different eras in his life, framed photos and pictures. Everywhere. I can’t even begin to think what’s up in the loft, I just have memories of handing him bags and bags and boxes that he squirreled away up there when we moved back here.
Group photos from his police life, the life before we met, had been hung in pride of place in the living room. He wanted to feel he was at home here, in my old family home that we moved back in to together in March, just before the first lockdown was announced, and creating a ‘Steve’ corner meant a lot to him. After he died, they seemed somehow out of place. He didn’t need them to be there anymore. And I didn’t need to be looking at photos of the young Steve amongst all those long ago, unknown fellow officers. There was nothing in them that spoke to me. I took them down, before the funeral, and replaced them with a beautiful copper coil clock that we had been given as a wedding present by Lucy – the funeral director who looked after Steve when he died. That felt like the right thing to do.
All the guidance on bereavement and grief tells you not to make big decisions during these early weeks and months after a death has occurred. But I think, for me, I am ok to be deciding on what is surrounding me. I’m trusting my instincts as I work my way through the days, and I instinctively feel that making space is what I need – in order to feel him more closely.
If there isn’t a strong resonance with him – his memory, his energy – when I pick up a piece of clothing or a book or a picture, then I know I can let it go. I intuitively feel that if there is less of the unimportant stuff of his imposing itself on me, then the pieces that I choose to hold on to will be even more precious, more meaningful, more important to carry forward. That won’t be the same for everyone, but I feel like it’s right for me. And I feel like it’s the right time to do it now. Now the charity shops are opening here again, I’m starting to clear the space around me. And that feels like a good thing, in this strange new place I am in. I feel I can breathe a little more easily.
I took this photo on November 4th, the morning after Steve’s funeral. I was out walking before sunrise, on my own with my thoughts.
As the inky blackness of the night sky gradually changed and lightened, and the orange tint of sunrise spread across the horizon, there was something so reassuring about the rising of the sun. The symbolism of light overcoming darkness and a new day beginning seemed poignant and pertinent as I walked over the frosty fields, trying to sense how I felt.
Before Steve died, I had worried about what it would be like, in the days after his death. We’d known for some months that he had terminal cancer, and I had been occasionally allowing myself to try and think ahead to what life would be like when he eventually succumbed to it.
I was afraid that, when he was dead, I would wake up thinking for a split second that he was still alive, and that I would have to remember each day that he had died, but this hasn’t happened. It seems that while I’m asleep, my subconscious doesn’t forget that he’s gone, so I don’t have to go through that re-remembering. I really hope that this continues. It’s a relief not to have to consciously remind myself of what has happened.
Walking the dog before the sun comes up has become something of a habit in this new, bereaved existence. I am waking really, really early, often 3.30 or 4am. This is a new thing. No matter how late I’ve gone to bed, nor how tired I am, whether I’ve had a drink the night before or not, I wake up with a start, and that’s it, my day has begun. I’ve learned to get up and get out and walk, early, before the rest of the world gets up.
I’m blessed to live in a semi-rural location, so there are fields and woods and footpaths all around. Within five minutes of the house, I can be walking along the canal or across the golf course, with just birdsong for company, and Juno, our rescue dog (who belongs to my son but who has become my surprised but delighted early morning walking companion).
We walk for miles, returning home as others, who keep more normal hours, are setting off for their morning walks. This suits me absolutely fine; I’ve found I don’t want to get chatting to anyone at the moment. If we do meet another early riser, smiling and nodding seems to be enough, early morning people seem quite undemanding of social niceties.
I am finding that walking moves me forward in more than just a physical way. Emptying my mind and just keeping putting one foot in front of another as we wander different routes each day creates space for the jumble of feelings and emotions to order themselves. I noticed this, that first day after we buried Steve’s body. I realised that I needed to keep giving myself this time on my own, moving my body but letting my mind rearrange itself as it needs. As I walk, I feel lighter, less dense, less contracted into painful and hard-edged grief.
Sometimes, tears stream down my face, as the deep sadness of being without him wells up and overwhelms my thoughts, but as quickly as it comes, that sadness passes, and other thoughts and memories take its place. I just let them all come and go, like bubbles drifting in the air and then vanishing. I have learned to do this. It’s instinctive and yet unfamiliar to me, but I know it’s the right thing to do, to just allow feelings to drift in and out of my mind.
This solitude is something I need, almost crave, while at the same time I need company, and distraction. I’m trying to ensure I get adequate of both, although I haven’t got the balance right yet. And I don’t want to be far away from home, I feel I need the sense of safety and security of familiar things around me, to be safely tucked away from other people, to be able to pick up and put down things as I feel inclined, not to have to talk to anyone if I don’t want to. It’s an effort to make myself go anywhere at the moment, but walking in the early morning feels like a good habit to form. Silence and birdsong and the sound of water are strong medicine. And watching the sun come up on another day reminds me that every day I am alive is a gift.
A personal story of grief
There is a beautiful little book by Baptist minister Richard Littledale, called Postcards from the Land of Grief which my friend Clare mentioned to me a few weeks after Steve died.
I recognise that description, with a jolt of familiarity – ‘the land of grief’. This is where I find myself, a new arrival in an unfamiliar place, where the language, the sounds and the sights and the scenery are all unknown. (Probably the scents and the flavours and tastes are all new too, but thanks to Covid, I can’t yet detect them.)
And in this new landscape, this new land, I am on my own. Despite the constant envelopment and surrounding of my family and friends, despite all the love and support and kindness I am having poured over me and into me, somehow, on a very elemental level, I am elsewhere. Alone.
The person I love – my partner, my soulmate, my lover, my best friend, my husband – the man who walked through life alongside me, isn’t here. He’s gone somewhere else completely, without me, and he’s not coming back.
His going is what catapulted me here into this new land. And this is where I now have to make my home forever. This thought is too huge to allow myself to think for more than a second or two. I feel unanchored and unsafe, and unsure of who I am or how I am, or how I will be. I’m adrift in a strange sea, without any idea where I am, or where I’m going.
And yet, instinctively, I know that to settle here and to find myself, to find the person I will become, I need to articulate my experience. I need to write. I need to share this with other people, because there may be something, just one small thing that I describe, that resonates with someone else, someone who is also wandering, lost and alone, through an unknown landscape of bereavement.
With the blessing of my fellow directors of the GFG, I am going to start a series of personal blog posts, which will appear here on the GFG Blog. I’m going to write about my journey in this alien new world, chronicling my thoughts and experiences as I work out who I now am.
I’m going to write, not just for my own benefit, but in the hope that I might maybe help others catch something to hold onto.
I’m going to write because that’s all I can do, describe and articulate being in this strange new world. Perhaps, in doing so, I can help others who will find themselves here one day. Perhaps something in my writing might be a way-marker that hints that another has passed this way ahead.
The series will be called ‘Absolute Beginner’, because that is exactly what I am. Despite all my knowledge of the theory of grief and bereavement, this is the start of my own personal journey, my learning of grieving though living it. I am an absolute beginner at this.
And the subtitle will be ‘A personal story of grief’, because that is exactly what it will be. This is my story, my personal experience, and I am hugely grateful to be able to share it on this platform.
I hope that when the words come, they will be good ones.
Time. Time and space and dates and days.
Right now, I am finding these measures all bent out of shape. My perception is warped by profound events that I have experienced since the last post I wrote for the blog, in September.
But I can see a thread that binds the dates and days, and stretches through time, bringing the past into sharp focus, and blurring recent days into an age ago.
November 3rd, 2010
I was the manager of the largest woodland burial ground in the UK. A beautiful place that I had been part of since before planning permission was granted. I loved it there. We had created an ofrenda, an altar, for Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – in the stunning Woodland Hall.
On the altar on November 3rd that year, the day after the Day of the Dead, were many photos and offerings to those who had died. Among the photos were pictures of my partner Steve’s parents, who had both died earlier that year. He had brought the photos there and placed them himself, among the colourful gifts and food and offerings.
The ofrenda, before the photos and offerings were placed.
November 3rd, 2012
I was asleep in our flat. I heard Steve’s voice calling my name. It was pitch black. The flat was on fire, and Steve had woken to the sound of the smoke alarm. He had seen the living room ablaze, and tried to put the fire out, before stumbling to the front door to get a breath of air through the acrid black smoke. The door slammed shut behind him. Somehow, he broke down the door and felt his way along the walls towards the bedroom, shouting my name. He kept calling until I woke into the thick choking smoke and fumbled my way towards his voice. I can hear him now, calling urgently ‘Just come to my voice, keep coming’. His lungs were burned with the amount of smoke he inhaled, calling and calling me. He was in hospital for five days. He saved my life.
We kept the clock from the living room that had melted in the heat to remind us always of how lucky we were to be alive. And from then on, we celebrated November 3rd as our joint birthday. The day we should have died.
November 3rd, 2020
I sit in the Woodland Hall. The same beautiful building that I had watched being created and lovingly built by Graham Brown and his team, all those years before.
This year, on November 3rd, the day after the Day of the Dead, there was no ofrenda in the Woodland Hall. Instead, before me was the coffin, draped in the flag of the Metropolitan Police, containing the body of my darling man.
He had died from Covid-19 on October 18th. The day before his birthday. Three weeks after our wedding day. He had been living with cancer for two years and had been told it was terminal earlier in the summer. Immediately after his divorce was finalised, we had booked a wedding, at the first possible opportunity. It was the happiest of days. And the last day he was well. Three days later he tested positive for Covid.
Time shifts and stretches and contracts. The past crashes back and imposes itself on the present. The man I love, the man who had spent so many sunlit days in that woodland with me, the man who has been the centre of my world for so long, is dead. Everything has changed.
I have much to write about the extraordinary experience I have been through.
About being given a terminal diagnosis. About facing mortality full on, fearlessly and bravely. About the complexity of anticipatory grief. About pain and suffering and sadness and worry. About the unbelievable gift of planning a funeral together, before illness sweeps you up into a blur of anxiety and worry about pain relief and equipment and aids. About death during a pandemic. About knowing that when you made the phone call for help, you would be setting in motion an unbearable parting. About having to isolate when you have tested positive and being alone and going almost mad with despair at being apart from the one person you need to be with. About the relief of being allowed to visit him but despair at the knowledge that the reason for this was because he was going to die. About sitting vigil with your soulmate as they journey through their last hours. About the similarity of being at a deathbed with being in a labour ward, as the moment of death / birth approaches. About watching death steal across the face of the man who is part of my soul. About the extraordinary transformational power of a good funeral. About navigating social distancing when you’ve been bereaved and when all you want is to be comforted in the arms of your friends.
There is so much to write. But I need to let time give me the perspective. Right now, it’s too new. It’s just three weeks since he died. It feels like a lifetime.
I just wanted to let readers of the blog know the reason for the GFG’s recent silence, at such a profound time for our society. And to tell you that it is possible to have the most perfect, perfect funeral – even when it seems everything is against it.
I will forever be grateful to Lucy Coulbert, of The Individual Funeral Company, who cared for Steve and for me as if we were her own. And to Isabel Russo, who wove together the most beautiful authentic ceremony, navigating sensitive family dynamics and an extraordinary number of swear words. And to Colin Liddell, Louise Winter, Shaun Foulds, Rachel Wallace, Suzie Wight, Ian Franklin, Alex Meaden, the Blue Knights – and everyone else who helped make Steve’s presence so vivid, and his funeral so extraordinary.
The film of the entire funeral can be watched here – and just a reminder, there is a not-insignificant amount of profanity involved, just as Steve wanted.
Stone carver Fergus Wessel and his wife Hannah from Stoneletters have just published a beautiful new book called Headstones – Advice and Inspiration.
The book is being sold to raise money for Maggie’s Centre, Oxford, and, in our opinion, it should be on the bookshelves of every funeral director in the country to lend to their clients. Choosing a headstone can be a difficult prospect, so hearing reassuring advice from experts written in plain English and being able to leaf through photographs for inspiration is something that many bereaved families will hugely appreciate.
Priced at just £12.99, or available as a downloadable PDF for £5.99, the book is full of images of different styles and inscriptions. The various materials used for headstones are described, and advice and guidance is clearly explained.
There are also helpful suggestions for epitaphs and personal stories from Stoneletters’ clients about their experience of deciding on a headstone. These personal comments are both touching and profound – here’s an example from Victoria Bennett’s words about her mother Maureen’s headstone; ‘Long after we have gone, long after the lichen has made the stone its own, I want a person passing to look and see some small letter, a faint echo of a flower and think, “There is a beautiful stone,” and feel uplifted.‘
The idea for the book came about after Hannah’s mother died from cancer two years ago. Fergus and Hannah wanted to write a book to sell in order to raise funds for Maggie’s. As Hannah explains:
“The process of choosing a headstone is often overlooked by the Funeral industry although we believe it can be an incredibly important part of the grieving journey.
Most of us find ourselves in the position of having to choose a headstone at some point in our lives. It can feel overwhelmingly daunting, but far from being stressful, creating a lasting memorial can be a healing process, leading to a deep sense of peace.
In this comprehensive guide, Fergus takes you on a step by step journey to commemorate your loved one, offering advice on all aspects of crafting a headstone, from finding the perfect words to selecting the best material. With over 150 photographs, epitaphs, and client stories, it is also a rich source of ideas and inspiration.
All proceeds from the sale of this book will go to Maggie’s and we hope to raise £12,000.
Visit stoneletters.com/book to purchase a copy and help us reach this target.”
Built in the grounds of NHS cancer hospitals, Maggie’s centres are uplifting places with professional staff on hand to offer the support people suffering from cancer need: practical advice about the benefits of eating well; emotional support from qualified experts; a friendly place to meet other people; a calming space to simply sit and have a cup of tea. For more information visit: maggies.org
The Competition and Markets Authority has today published their Provisional Decision Report in the latest stage of their Funerals Market Investigation.
It’s a long read – 472 pages in fact, with appendices being published next week, but you can read the short summary version here.
In essence, the CMA has provisionally found that the markets for funeral director services and crematoria services are not functioning well, and a number of remedies are proposed (delightfully described in the report as ‘sunlight remedies, shining a light on the pricing and back of house practices of the sector’).
Here they are:
‘We are proposing that a number of such measures would be implemented by the CMA as soon as possible after publication of our final report. Under these proposals:
(a) The CMA would actively monitor firms’ revenues and sales volumes in the funerals sector, in order to identify, and where possible, address, any harmful behaviour. The CMA would also publish an annual review of its monitoring activity. To support these activities, we would require certain funeral directors and all crematoria operators to provide specific financial information to the CMA.
(b) We would require funeral directors and crematorium operators to publish price information to support customers in accessing and assessing the price of funeral services. In addition, we would require funeral directors to disclose to customers, information relating to the ownership of the business, any business or financial interests in a price comparison website for the sector and payments or donations to hospitals, care homes and any other similar institutions.
(c) We would prohibit certain arrangements, payments and inducements made by funeral directors with/to third parties such as care homes as well as the solicitation of business through coroner and police contracts, in order to protect vulnerable customers from being channelled towards a given funeral director that may not fully meet their needs.
We propose to make a recommendation to the UK government and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland and Wales relating to the regulation of the quality provided by funeral directors. This would involve, in the first instance, the establishment of an independent inspection regime and registration of all funeral directors in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.’
Price control is not included at this time due to the impact of Covid-19 on both the sector and the CMA’s ability to collect data. Importantly, the possibility of price control is still on the table though, with the CMA proposing to come back to the subject of funeral prices with a potential supplementary market investigation to resolve pricing issues identified once the impact of the pandemic has resolved to a steady state.
It seems that investors in shares in Dignity PLC might not have noticed this caveat, as Dignity’s share price inexplicably soared today – presumably in giddy relief that the dreaded price cap was not on the list of CMA remedies. Dignity’s Non-Exec Chairman, Clive Whiley and Finance Director Steve Whittern will be chuffed with this upward movement, having purchased 82,000 shares between them in the last few months while the share price was sub £2.90 – it closed today at £6.34, so their combined shares are now worth £1,661,168.76 rather than the £867,266 they were worth on Monday this week…..
Anyway, newly enriched Dignity directors aside, Dignity shareholders would do well to sit down and plough through the entire Report, as it does not make comfortable reading with regard to the ‘Big 3’ (Dignity, Co-operative Funeralcare and Funeral Partners). There are many polite rebuttals of arguments put forward by Big 3 representatives on various aspects of the investigation. It seems that the CMA team were unconvinced by the claims that higher prices reflect higher standards, or indeed that higher prices had any justification at all.
The full report will take a lot of reading and digesting, but in essence the findings validate everything that the GFG has been calling for for years. Transparency of pricing. Transparency of commercial activities. Prohibition of ‘backhanders’ or other ‘arrangements’ with third parties. Full disclosure of involvement with price comparison websites or donations to care homes, hospices or hospitals. An inspector of funerals. And a funeral directors register.
We are delighted that the CMA has been so forthright and comprehensive in their investigations and their findings. It’s clear that the team saw past the protestations of powerful players with the money to pay for expensive reports and fancy presentations, and found for the bereaved people of this country. And we are so, so proud that the Good Funeral Guide and many of our supporters and recommended funeral directors have helped play a part in this hugely important moment of change in the funeral world.
Everyone who wrote to the CMA with their observations or personal accounts, everyone who invited the Investigation team to visit them and find out about their work, everyone who participated in our ‘progressive funeral directors round table discussion’ with CMA Project Director Stephanie Canet and her colleagues last year – all of you have played such an important part in helping to change the landscape of funerals for the better.
The latest in our new series of posts collecting the thoughts and experiences of funeral directors who have worked through the Covid-19 pandemic is from Jo Williamson, founder of Albany Funerals in Kent (top right in the Zoom image below).
“As the government continues to lift the Coronavirus lockdown restrictions this week, now allowing up to 30 people to attend funerals and the reopening of churches for funeral services, it is again time for us funeral directors to reconsider our ways of working, and to readapt once more. Something that we have been doing constantly since mid March. There is still a lot of fear, tiredness, frustration and anxiety in the air, but we are evolving, and reaching acceptance that this constant state of flux will possibly be the ‘new normal’ at least for the near future. It has been a strange time.
Because of our close ties with other progressive funeral directors and the discussions we have regularly on the Good Funeral Guild forum, we had some insight into what was coming back in March.
Like others, we began to make serious preparations weeks before the government put us into lockdown. We purchased PPE before the prices went insane and while you could still order full coverings, respirator masks, long gloves etc, and we split the team to work as separately as possible, such an alien concept to us.
In spite of our relative preparedness, I still see the first two months as dark and frightening times that I will never forget. The fear of driving through a ghost town to go into people’s homes where someone has just died, weighing up the desire for our own protection and theirs with that of not wanting to alienate grieving families with our CSI or even sci-fi like appearance. A tricky balance – I just remember constantly apologising. Funny how now we would not hesitate to wear full PPE even at times of minimum risk, it has become the norm, we all adapt.
Then there was the grappling with what we should and shouldn’t be doing – how far should we be going to help the bereaved say goodbye to their loved ones on their own terms? We had sleepless nights feeling that we were never doing enough, or maybe too much? The support from other Guild funeral directors was so valuable, we texted, Zoomed and Skyped, sent each other hand creams and encouragements, exchanged ideas.
Although the Coronavirus Bill contained welcome changes in legislation updating the archaic legal and administrative processes for funerals, general government guidelines pertaining to care of the deceased and funerals were confused, unclear and offered little support.
Could we trust them when the advice was downgraded? Were we putting people and ourselves at unnecessary risk? Things were constantly changing, we juggled with all of this as the situation evolved, it was obvious that this was a moving target. It was important that nobody on the team felt pushed into taking risks with their own health to satisfy the requests of those grieving, but on the other hand families were in even more acute pain than usual. The distress was palpable – the loss was sudden, the goodbyes had not been said in the usual way, grief-stricken families were separated, we couldn’t see them face to face. How can you provide a healthy balance?
Nevertheless, we did adapt, and so did the families that we worked with, often in the most dire of circumstances. We have been able to have good and real funerals, in spite of the restrictions. Some people even admitted they loved having something intimate that only close family could attend in a first instance, and not the annoying neighbour or the overbearing aunt.
From the start we were determined to reassure our clients that, contrary to the common belief, you don’t only get one chance to have a ‘funeral’, and that showing up to a crematorium following the death isn’t the ‘be all and end all’ of saying goodbye to someone. This could be done anywhere, anyhow, and doesn’t take anything away from the love and care you have for that person.
This was definitely a struggle for the majority, mostly due to the fear of what others would think, because ‘that’s how it’s always been done’ and the need to have something tangibly familiar at a time of great crisis and upheaval. Some could and others could not adapt to this concept, and it was almost exciting to see people who would normally simply go through the motions of a funeral on automatic pilot now thinking completely outside of the box and finding real comfort in that. I really do feel now that there has been a shift, a deeper understanding and perhaps a desire to update our funeral rites – which I welcome wholeheartedly and hope to encourage further.
An unexpected outcome of the pandemic was the media focus on funerals. As many of us know, funeral directors are usually the forgotten, the unspoken link to death, operating in the dark, behind the scenes, in secret, slipping into care homes in the middle of the night whilst doors are hurriedly shut, or adorned in Victorian outfits – mostly only alluded to in articles about the rise in funeral costs.
This was a new angle, we became……… interesting! People were not able to have the funerals they were accustomed to, they wanted information, they wanted our opinion. I gave interviews to the Telegraph, the Independent, the Kent Messenger and featured on an NBC global hangout forum with Michael Jackson’s Rabbi friend and a chap who had arranged a Zoom funeral for his brother who had died of Covid.
It was sometimes surreal being in the middle of a media storm with everything else going on, but refreshing to talk about our work and passion to a newly engaged audience. It can only be positive to talk about death and funerals more freely and I hope that this will be a start of a new awareness and shift in our antiquated rites of passage.”
In our new series of posts collecting the thoughts and experiences of funeral directors who have worked through the Covid-19 pandemic, today we hear from James Showers, of Family Tree Funerals in Stroud.
The photo is described by James as ‘Funerals now outdoors. Still beautiful!‘
“Thank you for inviting us to share our experience of recent months.
Family Tree Funerals ran in all directions at once to prepare for the imagined tidal wave of corpses. Staff immediately switched to home-working, leaving just myself in the office. We paid £20+ each for masks that were promised as virus-protection and – arriving a month later – were floppy and ill-fitting. We ransacked every cupboard and drawer for body bags and bought every one we could find. One person was full time sourcing aprons (and got ones that would do well in an abattoir), dust suits from Screwfix, ‘Type 5/6’ body suits, cheaply-made visors, more masks, and boxes of gloves (powdered were all we could find at the time). We bulk-ordered a total of 24 coffins, housed in a domestic garage. We bought a refrigerated trailer and were generously offered space in Michael Gamble’s unit to store it. We imagined double-bagging everything, with gloves in triplicate – and scaring the care home residents by pushing our trolley along the corridors dressed like Ghostbusters.
When we finally stopped our headlong rush and looked around, all was pretty quiet. And while we were still busy arranging funerals, Covid hardly featured in these early weeks.
So very early on, and to try out ‘the look’, I put on every piece of hazard equipment (including air-defenders and blue plastic shoe covers) and rang the bell of a good friend in Clifton, Bristol, who came out onto her balcony for – eventually – a laugh, but not before frightening the neighbours who thought she was infected. In hindsight, a prank in rather poor taste.
When we began getting ‘Suspected Covid’ cases, we faced a decision about the appropriate – and responsible – levels of protection for ourselves and families. We took a decision to allow visits to the person in their coffin at a two-metre distance and five days after death. We closed off the deceased person’s airways and dressed them in their own clothes while wearing PPE.
We have been conscious of the greatly reduced risk from working with a person who has stopped breathing – and that several days ago – compared to the nurses and doctors bending over a living, breathing person who actually has the virus.
If visiting care homes, we decided we would wear our normal clothes with a mask, visor and double gloves until inside the person’s room when we would put aprons over a hazard suit, block the airways, cover the person’s mouth with a disinfected cloth, and transfer them in a sheet to our stretcher or trolley with a cover as normal – and not in a plastic bag. Back at the parlour we would double-disinfect everything, put the person into their clothes and coffin after five days, then allow visitors @2m.
So far so good. Have we been cavalier? I don’t think so. We have been careful, though it could be argued that we took a slightly greater degree of risk than many funeral directors and observers; we chose this quite consciously after considering the way the virus transfers itself.
We expect another wave. We expect coronavirus to feature for a decade – or until a vaccine has been found to work. But we live in Stroud – a rural town which is not densely populated and has plenty of green space – and it seems we have been very lucky to date.
We have flinched at comments such as ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, and ‘you must be doing well out of this’, as this is simply not the case. We believe our work to be a ‘community service’, and this is true now more than ever.”
The GFG Blog has been unnaturally quiet during the last months. The unfolding catastrophe of the UK’s experience of Covid-19 has rendered us almost completely silent. Whether it is 44,220 as today’s official figures show, or many, many more – over 65,000 as suggested by the Financial Times analysis – the magnitude of the numbers of dead and bereaved is beyond comprehension. Our thoughts and observations will add nothing to the awfulness of our collective experience.
But there are those who do have something to contribute. And we think it is imperative that their words are collected, recorded and shared here as a record of the experiences of those who work with the dead and the bereaved during the global pandemic that we are all living through.
We have invited all of our Recommended Funeral Directors to use this platform to reflect on their work and how they have coped with the abrupt changes to funerals since March.
We hope that many of them will do so. We have committed to making this Blog available to them to share their thoughts whenever they feel ready to do so. Some may not wish to. Others may need time to gather together the right words to express the enormity of the experience. Today, we are proud and humbled to present the first account that has been sent to us.
It is written by David Holmes, of Holmes and Family Funeral Directors, based in the South East of England.
The photo is of Alex and Josh – ‘trying to dress appropriately on day 1’.
“I don’t recall anyone calling it lockdown in the beginning, although it was obvious something was coming. On that first Monday morning, I set off from home as normal, although it didn’t feel anything like normal.
The ferry I normally use from my home in the Isle of Wight had stopped running, the service was withdrawn. For the first time in 23 years of commuting, I needed to make my own arrangements. Thankfully, I have a 21 ft RIB, an inflatable boat, capable of making the crossing even on rough days, and so I used it. Over that weekend, I heard that the harbours on both sides of the Solent had gone into lockdown too, boat owners were legally prevented from accessing their boat, using it or mooring it elsewhere. This news greatly stressed me; how could I sit at home idle at a time like this, I emailed the harbour masters, explaining my predicament, ‘I am a key worker; level 2, I need to be at work’ was my plea. Both Lymington and Yarmouth harbour masters responded quickly, they were wonderfully understanding, in Lymington, they even allocated me their number one mooring space!
The night before that first day at work I barely slept, wondering how we would manage, fearing the unknown. I knew we had an obligation to the people who had already booked a funeral. I feared for my staff, the brilliant caring people who are Holmes and Family, would they just resign and run away? I feared for my eldest daughter, who following an illness, had a lung removed. I worried about my disabled Mum, who fairly recently suffered a stroke. Would I get Covid19 and pass it on to them both? I am almost 60, by far the oldest person at work, I’m a little overweight too, which seems to put me in the at-greater-risk group.
Driving up to work, it was eerily quiet, I have never seen anything like it. The M3 motorway was virtually empty, except for supermarket lorries. It only took an hour, and when I arrived, I could tell everyone was feeling as I did, nervous, anxious and fearful for what was to come. I think we all assumed we’d get it quickly, and then what? How would we complete the already booked funerals, who would replace each of us as we fell like dominos?
A team talk seemed essential, we gathered in the kitchen and I told everyone that the merry-go-round of life had stopped, and as funeral directors, we were among the chosen few. Our duty was to the people who had placed the dead in our care, and to those yet to do so. We had all freely chosen this path, and now we should fulfil our duty, just as those in the NHS and other essential services would do. I reminded them that what we do is a privilege, to be entrusted with someone’s funeral arrangements is a great privilege. They responded brilliantly, as I knew they would. We thought about the practicalities, how we would do our jobs while protecting ourselves and our own families. Like me, everyone has someone they need to shield, and we’re still doing so, this is nowhere near done yet, nor will it be for some time.
We ordered coffins, we bought and begged as much PPE as we could find and practiced using it. We agreed between us that we were only as strong as our weakest link, and so we all washed, cleaned, sanitised and created new routines and still stick to them rigidly. I have never been prouder of those who work with me, not for me, with me, after all, what use is a one-man undertaker? It’s a team effort, without the team, I’m no use to anyone.
Our families, well they’ve been brilliant too, we’ve arranged funerals in a completely new way, we’ve talked, we’ve emailed, skyped and worked closely together but apart to make sure we do the best we can.
There have been tears, some of the families’ situations have really touched us. The end of a life must be marked in a meaningful way, and in recent months, that’s not always felt possible. I choked-up when I drove the hearse to the house of parents who had lost their beautiful adult daughter. There would be just 6 people present, including her partner, parents and brother, not even flowers allowed, which seemed particularly cruel. On arrival, we turned into the road and saw family, friends and neighbours lining the street, heads bowed, silently paying tribute and supporting the incredibly dignified parents. As we crept along the road, these people threw dozens of flowers in our path, something I hadn’t witnessed since Princess Diana’s funeral procession. It really moved me, and it’s happened since, moving me again.
Many humans have great inner strength, a way of adapting to impossible situations and just dealing with things. Most of us have found a way to cope and have responded wonderfully well to this dreadful virus but our fight continues.”
An official government digital ‘Bereavement Leaflet’ document has just appeared, purporting to provide ‘Information for the Bereaved’ for people in England during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It can be found here.
It’s not a great document to be honest. It doesn’t give very much useful information, but what it does state very clearly is “A first step will be to choose a funeral director. You can find an industry-inspected local funeral director via the following websites:
The National Association of Funeral Directors: funeral-directory.co.uk
The National Society of Allied and independent Funeral Directors: SAIF.org.uk/members-search’
It seems that the government are steering anyone who has been bereaved during the current disastrous situation straight to a member of one of the two trade associations. If a company is not a member of either NAFD or SAIF then according to this document they’re probably not worth contacting.
It seems that notwithstanding the market investigation by the CMA into the funeral industry that has so far been less than complimentary about large corporate companies who all belong to a trade association, the government are now suggesting bereaved people choose a funeral director who is a member of a funeral director trade association. On the premise that they are ‘industry-inspected’.
Just for the record, we think this is wrong.
Some of the best funeral directors feel that neither trade association represents them sufficiently well. Many of these are companies recommended by the Good Funeral Guide who have been through our accreditation process.
You can read a series of guest posts from some superb funeral directors outlining why they choose not to belong to either trade association here.