Mark Robson DipFD and Gary Stephens are the owners and joint partners in this new funeral business in Minehead, and it will be either Mark, Gary or Melissa Keen who will greet you when you step in through the door of their lovely new premises in Park Street.
Mark has been involved with funerals since he was a teenager, his godfather was an undertaker and Mark helped out washing cars for him during the school holidays., carrying his first coffin at the age of just 15. The business fascinated him, and when he left school he took up a job with a large company, where he remained for 30 years ‘and one week’, gaining a wealth of experience as his responsibilities increased.
Over the years, Mark arranged and conducted thousands of funerals, of every conceivable kind, he gained a BTEC in Funeral Directing with Edexcel, and had responsibility for many staff in the Somerset area before the surprise (and some might think short-sighted!) decision to restructure the company he worked for last year meant that he – and many other similarly well qualified senior staff -found themselves facing redundancy.
Undaunted, Mark made the decision to start his own company, where he would be able to put all his skills to use serving bereaved families, without a huge corporate structure restricting him. His long-time friend, Gary Stephens had often encouraged him to do this as Gary could see how valuable Mark’s abilities would be in a small, family focused funeral directors, and with Mark’s new freedom the two of them decided to become business partners in their own company.
Gary’s involvement in funerals came about through personal loss, at a young age he experienced the death of both his parents, just six months apart, and after arranging two funerals within a short space of time he realised that he wanted to help other people who have been bereaved. Gary had worked for a large telecommunication company for many years, and customer service was a huge part of his role, his friendly, likeable personality and capable manner playing a large part in instilling confidence in his clients. Realising that he wanted to work in the funeral industry, Gary applied for a position as a funeral service operative and set out to learn as much as he could about how a funeral business worked.
The two men had met through their mutual involvement in fundraising for charities, both are keen Committee members of the award winning Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival and their friendship had strengthened over the years working together on this high profile – and world famous – event. Giving back to their local communities is something important to them both, and this generosity of spirit has helped them shape their new business.
Their premises are in a large, former shoe shop in Park Street at the top end of The Parade. It had once been a funeral director business in the past, but it has now been transformed into a light, airy and modern space with huge windows offering anyone passing by the opportunity to see what a contemporary undertaker looks like.
The building is in two parts, to the left is the large space with a small desk and chairs, and comfortable seating where funeral arrangements can be made, while the right side of the building is a similar seized space that has been designed for use as a service room for families wanting to hold a ceremony in Minehead before the coffin is taken on to the crematorium.
The glass door from the street opens into a small lobby with glass doors leading you either to the arranging area or the service room – everything is open and visible, there’s no feeling of uncertainty as to what is behind the door as you go in. A band of frosting on the windows ensures some privacy for anyone sitting inside but there is still a feeling of being connected to the world outside as people walk past and glance in.
The service room is also available for local community groups to use, and the flexible seating means that it can be adapted for many different types of gatherings. An urn can be provided for refreshments, and there is a fully accessible toilet at the back. Shutters across the window will give privacy when needed, and a lectern and facilities for playing music and screening video footage are also provided.
Large attractive wooden double doors at the back of the service room open into a small space where the coffin can be situated for ceremonies and if visitors have mobility issues, this is the route they would take to spend time with the person who has died in the beautiful chapel of rest. Access from the arranging area involves a small step before turning right into the corridor that links the two parts of the building.
The chapel of rest deserves a different name, it is the most beautiful space, with a stunning image on the rear wall that evokes a feeling of peace and acceptance. The picture is of a single tree with the sun setting in the background, the vibrant colours glowing with the light that comes in through the glass window behind it. As darkness falls outside, the colours in the picture also fade away, making this room a very special place to spend time in contemplation.
Behind the arranging area there is a small kitchen and loo, and a door leading to the mortuary area where people are cared for by Mark and Gary and their colleague, Melissa Keen carrying out ‘first offices’ of bathing and hair washing if required. This is also where any embalming takes place – Mark is a supporter of embalming and the company employ a very skilled embalmer to carry this out where required.
There has been a lot of thought and discussion between Mark and Gary as their business took shape, and the end result is a blend of both their personalities. Details are really important, the look and feel of how they present themselves as a company, their highly personal approach to each funeral, their willingness to be flexible and respond to whatever a family wants all combine to make this small company have a very personal feeling about it. They have adopted the Tree of Life as the Robson and Stephens symbol, and given it their own personal touch, with their initials incorporated into the design and a few of the leaves shaped into dark pink hearts by their talented graphic designer. And next to the sofa in the arranging area is a device where you can ask Alexa to play any music you might be thinking of to check it’s what you want for a ceremony. Chocolate biscuits were on offer when we visited too and the kettle is always on for anyone popping in.
Really personal involvement with each family. This is what Mark longed for while he worked for the large corporate company, and what Gary experienced when he made the arrangements for his parents’ funerals – he realised how important this was. Melissa too, Gary’s partner and the third person you might meet, has experienced the death of her mum, and this, together with her years of customer service and experience with another funeral company mean that she shares the vision that Mark and Gary have of being able to provide dedicated, compassionate care for every family that come to them.
In his former employment (and out of 120,000 employees) Mark won a national award for looking after families and training staff – these skills are now being focused on ensuring that every family that uses Robson and Stephens benefits from all his experience over the years.
The fresh, modern approach, the thoughtful attention to every detail and the transparent openness, both practical and professional, is what sets this company apart from other, less forward thinking businesses.
Both Mark and Gary are hugely enthusiastic about being able to offer people of Minehead and the surrounding areas an ethical, fairly priced service that gives excellent value. They are immensely likeable, natural, compassionate and capable people with strong community values, making them ideal to serve families in whichever way needed.
Robson and Stephens is a great example of what can be achieved by forward thinking people who are determined to improve the way we do funerals in the UK.
Mark and Gary have brought together their individual experiences and skills to create a company that will provide bespoke, personal service for every family at a reasonable price. They are friendly, natural and normal, a far cry from the stereotypical caricature of an undertaker, and their premises are lovely, designed to make you feel at ease.
A testimonial received from a former client that Mark cared for states ‘You made us feel safe at a very scary time in our lives as we didn’t know what to do. You supported us and guided us, you gave 110% of your time to help us make the worst day of our lives beautiful’.
That pretty much sums up the quality of service you will receive here.
I cannot begin to say how much we appreciated the help and guidance that Mark gave us at such a difficult time helping us throughout the funeral arrangements and the legal formalities
Mark was always professional and very kind. It is very hard to put into words just how much he helped me to make my father’s funeral very special indeed with some unique ideas and those special touches reflecting Dads long life and sporting interests which was what he would have wanted.