Oliver and Toby Holmes. Sons of David Holmes (who founded the company and who attends 99% of funerals as a driver / bearer), Ollie and Toby are quite extraordinarily lovely young men.
We met Toby only briefly, as he was busy with the business of the day, but spent quite some time with Ollie, the lead funeral conductor for the company. He is young (in his twenties) and had been planning a career in rugby coaching and teaching before finding himself drawn into the family business. And he is a natural.
Among the many thank you cards and testimonials from families, we saw the words “Thanks in particular to Oliver who from the moment we met him on the day of my Nan’s death, showed us that being young is no barrier to showing kindness, respect and compassion.” That just about sums him up.
Both Ollie and Toby are quiet, polite and extremely smart. We noticed particularly the gleaming black shoes worn by all three of the Holmes men, despite their varying attire in the office. It is clear that David has passed down some good habits to his sons. David himself is a loquacious and likeable man who has been involved in funerals for almost forty years, with experience at Kenyon’s funeral directors in London before starting a joint funeral business with his late brother Andrew Holmes. David has long been a champion of family run funeral businesses, and somehow, as well as keeping Holmes and Family going, he manages to fit in a life outside of the company that includes running the Isle of Wight garlic festival and chairing a charity that helps people with disabilities into employment.
The main office is in Fleet, where David arrives fresh off of the Isle of Wight Ferry each day to oversee the running of the Holmes & Family. This is the busiest of the three branches, and is also the home of the company mortuary. The business has been in these premises in Fleet since 2008, although the appearance has changed radically as a result of a foray into the world of TV when the company was featured in an episode of Alex Polizzi’s ‘The Fixer’.
Part of the trade-off for hosting a film crew for weeks (and risking national humiliation as part of the admonishing style of the programme) was a re-branding of the business, and David gauged that this, together with raising the company profile locally, was a risk worth taking.
The stylish new grey colourway of the exterior and the smart signage is a testimony to the design skills of the re-branders, and the focus is now on the essential aspects of the business that makes it stand out from its competitors. An etched message in the glass on the door says ‘Family is not an important thing – it’s everything’, while the wording on the main window states simply ‘Dedicated & personal’. Inside, everything has been made less formal and more welcoming, with a sofa in the reception area and another in the office, along with higher upright chairs. The desk that had formerly been a barrier between the funeral arranger and clients is now to one side of the room, making conversations easier and much more relaxed.
The chapel of rest is behind the office; simply decorated in neutral colours it is a quiet room where people are welcome to spend plenty of time with the person who has died. Further back is another office and a staff area, with the mortuary at the rear.
Sarah Lee is the funeral arranger at Fleet, and she is another natural. Warm, genuinely kind and friendly, Sarah is affectionately referred to by David as their ‘pain in the ass arranger’ because ‘she often spends ridiculously long amounts of time with families’. Sarah is unperturbed by this soliloquy; she is completely at ease with the way she works with clients of Holmes & Family and is wholly comfortable with the role that she has had for three years now.
Formerly working in the care business and as a counsellor, and having long wanted to become involved with funerals, she found herself employed by David by sheer chance when she walked in to the office one day to ask about any vacancies after filling up her car in the fuel station next door. “I just love it,” she said. “And it has changed me. I can’t imagine myself ever doing anything else.”
David’s eye for good staff has worked well – he picks new employees for their personality and warmth, reckoning that either someone has got what it takes to work well in funerals or they haven’t – and if they have then everything else they need to know can be taught. He trains new staff slowly in the way he thinks things should be done and there is a strong sense of belonging, even with non-family members like Sarah and the two funeral arrangers at the other branches, Sharon and Lucy.
Sharon is a former florist who, like Sarah, had wanted to work in funerals for a long time. A joint Christmas party where undertakers and florists socialised together led to Sarah ‘poaching’ Sharon, and she now runs the Sandhurst branch of Holmes & Family. She too loves her job and can’t see herself ever working anywhere else – and she emphasised how lovely the Holmes family were to work for. ‘They make you feel like you’re part of the family,” she said, and even though I’m here on my own I don’t ever feel alone.” Smaller and quieter than the Fleet branch, Sandhurst has the same smart grey outside and welcoming reception area inside where Sharon sits at her desk – again, this is at an angle so that it doesn’t create any barriers, and the décor is fresh and light. There is a chapel of rest, which smelled beautiful, and a small room at the rear that families are able to use to meet with ministers or celebrants to plan the funeral if they need to.
The Aldershot branch is the latest to be added to the Holmes & Family trio (much to the consternation and against the advice of Alex Polizzi, see clip here.) Three years on and the Aldershot branch is thriving, despite Ms. Polizzi’s dire warnings. The funeral arranger here is Lucy, a young mum from Aldershot who has wanted to work in funerals since she was 14. Formerly a hairdresser, Lucy’s mother used to work for a funeral company and that sparked an interest that has stayed with her until today. She was offered a job share by David, but was determined that she wanted to work full time despite the problems of child care, and is immensely grateful for the flexible support that she gets from the Holmes family to help her juggle everything. The branch has recently had a new ceiling and flooring, and is light and airy, and Lucy’s warm friendly personality instantly makes you feel welcome and at ease. “People don’t seem to cry here,” she said. “I don’t know why, they just don’t.”
Immensely human and normal but with an underpinning sense of competence and a can do attitude, Holmes & Family combine the best of a modern approach to funerals with traditional values. They will do whatever a family wants – “Nobody walks through our door and gets it our way!” Choice, chat and time is the Holmes & Family way, and as David says, when it comes to choice they put doing the right thing above revenue generation. And they will give you time in unlimited quantities.
Giving each family exactly what they want, and helping those who don’t know what they want discover the possibilities. Everyone at Holmes & Family is totally dedicated to their work – so much so that it’s not work to them, it’s a way of life. They will all bend over backwards to make sure that each family who chooses them has the very best possible experience. When Sarah hears that someone has chosen the local corporate funeral director rather than Holmes & Family, it genuinely upsets her, because she knows their experience won’t be anything like the one they could have had if they had come to her and her colleagues. Ollie insists on answering all the out of hours calls “because I just think it’s better for the family to speak to me and to know it’s me who’ll be looking after the person who has died.”
It would be hard to find a team of people more committed to helping the bereaved families in their community.
David’s values of ‘family is everything’ are embedded in the company, and all of his staff totally believe and enact this. Each family that comes to them is treated with the same immense kindness and care. We heard numerous stories of different funerals, each person recalled by name, and it is apparent that many families still call in and visit years after they made funeral arrangements with this company.
And Ollie and Toby are safe hands to carry this business on into the future – something David realised recently when he was assisting with a vast and complicated military funeral organised by his sons, and he stood at the back watching them subtly moving amongst the hundreds of mourners, coordinating everything perfectly. “I realised then that my work is done,” David said. He should be very proud.
Open, warm, welcoming and real, the team at Holmes and Family are just the people you would want looking after someone you loved. They all have a deep feeling of service and humility in the work that they do, but are utterly natural, normal and kind.
Choice, chat and time is what they offer. They think their future is bright and that ‘given time and effort by all of us who want a different funeral world, families will become better informed’. We agree.
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.