Even though she has just been named Green Funeral Director of the Year at this year’s Good Funeral Awards, we don’t think that being defined as a ‘funeral director’ works for this extraordinary woman. Jo Vassie is the person who you will speak to, who will come and collect the person who has died and who will listen to how you want to create the funeral, but she is so much more than just a funeral director.
For many years, Jo has been highly respected in the natural burial world for the beautiful natural burial ground she owns and manages on the family farm near Dorchester. In 2016, after being runner up for a number of years, Higher Ground Meadow was named Best Natural Burial Ground in the UK in the People’s Awards organised by The Natural Death Centre Charity and was also runner up in the Cemetery of the Year category of the 2016 Good Funeral Awards.
Hundreds of people have chosen Higher Ground Meadow as the final resting place for a family member or friend, and many hundreds more have chosen their grave there for their own future use. The stunning views from the burial ground are matched only by the extraordinary personal care with which Jo and her son Tom look after the land, and the families who visit there.
Right from the start, back in 2009, as they were walking together back to the ceremonial barn after choosing the spot for their grave, people would say to Jo, “Now when we pop off, can you come and pick us up?” The answer always had to be “No, I’m sorry, it’s only the burial ground that we have,” but there was clearly a need and Jo saw that there could be an opportunity to expand their business. Her husband Peter had a different view.
“When I mentioned it to Pete, it was always a NO. I’ve never had many of those types of ‘no’s’ but it was the sort not to argue with, or bother keeping on about,” says Jo. She resigned herself to continue sending families to local funeral directors for the undertaking part of the funeral, but the thought didn’t go away.
As time went by and the burial ground became busier, conscious that they weren’t getting any younger, Jo and Peter looked to their son Tom who lived nearby with his wife and young family. “It was make your mind up time, and he decided that he would take it all on one day, so he and Lorna came home with their sons to live and work. They moved into their own part of the large farmhouse, and Tom joined Jo working daily at the burial ground. He took over the grave digging from his parents, a welcome relief for the couple in their sixties after many wet and muddy experiences ‘up top’ preparing graves, and he attends every funeral alongside Jo. A former DJ, he also takes charge of playing any CDs.
Obviously, before too long the same ‘when I pop off’ question about providing undertaking services came up again, but, unlike his father, Tom was happy to try it. “Why not?” he said. That was enough for Jo, and within no time at all some barn space close to the farmhouse had been converted into suitable premises and they had acquired a nine seater Peugeot Expert. Tom removed the two back rows of seats and built a shelf with rollers that a coffin could sit neatly on top of, with space underneath for the stretcher that is used for collecting people. The next family who asked the ‘popping off’ question were told yes, and Higher Ground Family Funerals was born.
By the time we visited, in September 2016, Jo and Tom had already carried out almost eighty funerals without really advertising their service at all. If someone calls them because a relative has just died, or knowing that time is short for someone, Jo asks whether they have decided on a funeral director, and if the answer is no she advises them that she and Tom can help them if they wish. Most people see the obvious advantage of this and Jo and Tom have got used to going out in the middle of the night or finding their way to hospital mortuaries to collect people who have died.
For families choosing a burial at Higher Ground Meadow, having just one person to deal with throughout the whole process must be an immense relief. Word of mouth has spread about HGFF, and Jo and Tom have also organised a number of cremations, (which has opened Jo’s eyes to the bizarre world of doctors refusing to travel less than ten miles to see a body, something which incenses her!) Nonetheless, the undertaking side of her work has added yet another layer of job satisfaction to an already fulfilling existence, as Jo gets to know much more about each family they help. “It is such a privilege to be able to assist them to have just the type of service that they want, the thank you letters and e-mails are so special,” she says.
And they are. Over and over, in cards and letters and e-mails from families, relief and gratitude is expressed for the patience, thoughtfulness and humane approach with which Jo and Tom have both helped them with the arrangements and cared for the person who died.
The building where people are looked after prior to the funeral is just across the garden in sight of the farmhouse kitchen window, and has been designed to make families feel confortable and at home. The timber clad barn has been converted to provide a light and comfortable sitting room (where the funeral arrangements can be made, or where families can spend time if they are visiting their dead person), an adjacent room with sofas and chairs which is used for visiting the person and a toilet and kitchen for families to use. Further back is the spotless mortuary area, fully equipped with refrigeration space for eight people and everything that Jo and her daughter in law need to care for bodies.
They don’t embalm. “It’s horrible. I wouldn’t want it done to me and all the families that I deal with don’t want it, especially when it’s explained what it is.” Nor do they stitch mouths together, or put plastic caps under eyelids. Jo tells families this, and invariably people are pleased. Instead, she and Lorna take care in making the deceased look as nice as they can naturally for their families. “Lorna has better eye-sight than me when it comes to using a razor or applying some make-up,” says Jo. Every body is laid on a thick calico sheet before being placed in their coffin, Jo prefers the cream colour material against the skin rather than white, and those who are not dressed in their own clothes will be laid to rest in a simple cotton gown.
In keeping with the natural ethos, all coffins are biodegradable, even those offered for cremation, and Jo will suggest that rather than use the chapel at the crematorium for the service, the family use Higher Ground Barn where they can have the time needed to avoid the ‘conveyor belt’ feeling.
In Jo’s own words, “The one important thing we offer is time, nobody must ever feel we are in a rush. Don’t make people feel shy of asking any question they may have, never talk down to people, just explain every step of the way. One lady said to me ‘thank you for just being human’.”
Helping any family have a farewell that is a really personal one and which is carried out in the way they feel is right for them.
Jo’s attention to detail is unrivalled, and she adds many little touches that feel right to her, preparing ashes plots by decorating them with fresh flowers from the garden, carefully removing the turf before digging a grave and then immediately laying it back on top when the burial has been completed so that the grave looks beautiful straight away. She instinctively does what she would want done for her, and her thoughtfulness is evident in everything she touches.
Jo and Tom are as far away from the traditional funeral director image as it is possible to be. They are ordinary lovely people who have seen a need for a different way of doing things, and who have just got on and done it. Their simple, straightforward approach to the practicalities of looking after dead people is absolutely normal, and will be welcomed by many families as a breath of fresh air.
Jo is a one off, a tiny dynamo of energy who had an idea and has just got on with it. She treats everyone as she would want to be treated, and with practical support from Tom and Lorna, and with an eight year old grandson already interested in helping out at the burial ground, she seems to have started a quiet revolution in the world of funerals.
She will probably hate to read this, as she is self effacing and dismissive of praise, but we think she is a leading light who is blazing a trail for a more human approach to death. Jo herself just thinks she’s ‘incredibly lucky to have a good man beside me who’s always helped me to create my dreams’. Peter Vassie, the quiet man behind the scenes running the family farm should be immensely proud. His wife and son are doing great work.
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.