A look back — me, a former funeral co-ordinator, reminiscing…

For the last half decade I worked in funeral homes in and around Portsmouth (and one in Worthing), and I was employed by The Southern Co-operative Funeralcare to arrange funerals and to ensure their ‘successful’ delivery. Throughout this time I worked very closely with some fantastic people who have helped me deliver well over 500 funerals, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have met them, to have got to know them, to have worked with them, and to have learnt from them — I’ve not, for some time, considered them all to be colleagues but friends, and this post is my way to thank them whilst reminiscing on a job that was more than a job, but one which became a big part of me that I’m sure to miss.

I have learnt so much about myself — my strengths and weaknesses — and I’ve discovered so much about us humans, about our selfless quality to just want to help the best way we know how, and I’ve gathered so much knowledge that the essence of which can only serve me well as dawns my future today.

It’s been an honour, and my pleasure, to have spent the last 5 years as I’ve spent them — I would only change the ending, but even then I find amid its darkness valuable lessons to hold, and besides, an ending is an ending however it comes.

What made me want to work in a funeral home?

Some are born to do it — they grow up wanting to do this kind of work for a variety of reasons — while others just sort of fall into it, finding themselves working with death with no prior knowledge that that’s what they’re going to be doing with their lives.

I’m a latter lad — I was working just outside London and commuting from Portsmouth every day, and when I saw the job advertised I thought to myself ‘I can do that’ so I applied, and I got the job.

What served me well in that ‘I can do that’ thought was my own upbringing — my parents and family never shied away from the topic of death, and I was always included in its occurrence. From a very young age I learnt that our loved ones do die, and I learnt not to fear death, and that in death comes celebration.

I don’t remember Grandpa James and Grandpa Bishop’s deaths, but I do remember when Grandma James died. I was around 5 or 6 years old and I remember my father telling me — I don’t remember our conversation fully but I do remember asking him if he’d seen her light rise from her body, and I remember strutting away quite content after he’d said “yes”. What provoked my contentness is lost on me, but I did strut and I was content — my father has told me.

I remember her funeral — I remember looking forward to going to the cemetery because I liked the cemetery. Grandma James had taken me there on many occasions to visit Grandpa, and I remember her chatting to him as she tended to the weeds.

I remember her service — I remember the vicar coming to me afterwards and suggesting I join the choir because I had a good singing voice, and I remember saying to him that I thought his suggestion highly inappropriate because I wasn’t there to sing, I was there for Grandma — I may not have said it quite that way, but from what my parents have told me, I was very clear in my thoughts.

From Grandma’s death pets died, and as every pet lover knows a pet is no different to family, and my family had a lot of pets — cats, dogs, hamsters, goldfish, horses, sheep, and chickens (I lived on a farm during my teen years), and then other family members passed away, Grandma and Grandpa Pat & Geoff, my step-grandparents — a friend of mine, Kieran, he passed away — all in all, with all the passing I grew to enjoy a good funeral, and it all cemented home my ‘no fear on death’ policy.

I suppose my love of a good funeral is what really got me into funerals — of all the services out there, a funeral is the one I most enjoy — but that’s not really something I could say to someone who had just lost a loved one and who was just enquiring, so I always said I’d just seen the position advertised and applied, and was successful.

Since working in a funeral home I lost Aunty Dorrie, Grandma Bishop’s sister who I’ll always remember for her infectious laugh, and Uncle Humphrey, Grandpa Bishop’s brother for whom I share amusing memories with my cousins, and then I lost Grandma Bishop in January 2015, and then my cousin, James, a mere three months later — all these deaths broke me and empowered me in many different ways, and in their deaths I felt able to give more to the families I helped.

What was it like working in a funeral home?

Every funeral is a team effort — anyone who says it isn’t is a liar, there is just no way that one person can honour someone and care for them in the way they are honoured and cared for without assistance, no way — yes, when broken down into its parts one person can do all that, but I always worked with a team, and in that team we succeeded, and I never succeeded on my own.

I filled out the paperwork and booked the date etc, but it was the Ambulance crew who collected the deceased and who dressed them, and it was the Conductor and his or her team on the day that delivered what I’d arranged.

From my perspective, I always saw my role as normalising the unfamiliar — it wasn’t my job to make things right again but it was my job to make easier and regular a transition that, thankfully for most, comes only once in a blue moon. I needed clear ears that could hear and I needed a stoic understanding that assumed nothing, and a tongue keen on gentle, assuaged words that wagged not away with itself but knew when to lull silently between my teeth. I needed knowledge — an ever expanding knowledge of grief and bereavement, of the natural and legal processes of death, of the regulations for both burial and cremation, of coffin linings and floral arrangements, of keepsake options and masonry, of so many things that a list is prohibitive — and I needed to be able to articulate this ever expanding knowledge in a way that was effective, that assured no misunderstanding, and which didn’t upset people. I needed to build relationships with the families I met, with Ministers and Doctors, with regulatory and health authorities, other funeral homes and assorted service providers, so as to allow me to deliver the funeral at hand, to honour the deceased, the loved one, lying at rest in my mortuary.

Most of all, I needed a selfless want to help all in their darkest hour no matter how they’ve reacted to it — some were numb, some were cracking jokes, some were distraught, some were angry, and for all these people I had to remain calm and composed. I couldn’t pick and choose who to help because I didn’t like the death at hand or them as people — I had to help everyone in need and I had to help them the best way I could, and that is all I had to do.

Personally, I found working in a funeral home to be a battle between my own mortality, the mortality of my loved ones, and the deaths at hand — I didn’t really want to know every day that I and my loved ones are going to die, regardless of my ‘enjoyment of a good funeral’, but that was always at the back of my mind — I found my job to be a daily test of personal strength.

When my gran died in January 2015 I felt empowered because I could finally relate more closely to their grief and the grief I was facing, and I could better describe a chapel visit because I’d visited her. My gran’s final gift to me was the ability to give more of myself to the families I met.

When my cousin died in March 2015 I had the honour of arranging the funeral of a lady killed during a car crash, and I feel that I gave as much as I could to that family under the circumstances, and I don’t look back on that arrangement with regret because I know I really understood just how that family felt, and that I did everything I could to help them.

I’ll always remember my first suicide, and I’ll always remember my first child — I’ll always remember the second and third of each, too, but I’ll always remember just as quickly the care and support of my colleagues. After all, every funeral was a team effort, and the feelings provoked were always echoed — we were our own support, and this I’ll always remember.

The ending

I won’t lie by primping up the ending into something it isn’t — In lieu of care does detail the events as nicely as possible, and although I will always prefer a rewrite to the ending — I would’ve preferred compassion and care from my employer when I needed it — the ending is what I was given, and it is something I must deal with.

One can’t impose upon others their own standards of care

But if I ignore the nature of the end — if I look upon it as positively as possible — I find so much beauty, so much honour, and so much pleasure in the ending of what I’ve done. I find no power given to my former manager and company, even if they did think it right to question my grief and force me to prove it — they have nothing over me, they had no right to do what they did, and I have only this to say to them:

One day your words and actions will haunt you more than they’ll ever haunt me

Today, and forever onwards, when someone looses someone I won’t every shy away from that conversation. I always feared to speak because I didn’t know what to say when someone said that someone was dead, and what I learnt in my time working in a funeral home is that most times words aren’t needed. I just need to give them my ears, my time, and say nothing.

I just need to listen.

That is what my time in a funeral home has taught me, and that is the main lesson I’ll take away.

I’ll miss so much, though — I’ll miss the most my bowing to those in every hearse that left my care, and I’ll miss setting up the chapel of rest — but in this, I will enjoy the memories. I’ll always look back and see this time I spent to be very worthy, very humbling, and honourable. Those years have not been wasted — during my time, I did good, and I did myself and my loved ones proud.

In acknowledgement — my thank you to the people I’ve met

Since my goodbye was denied by events that ultimately flew out of my control, I figure right now is a better time than any for me to say just how wonderful I’ve found you all. Everyday I saw such selfishness from my colleagues that you must all be held aloft, and you must all delight in the humanity you bestow — I’ll remember our banter and I’ll remember our arguments born of passion. I’ll remember your sheer commitment to the people you and I have helped, and the decedents before us — I’ll always remember your giving of yourselves so fully and unconditionally, and your love. You are wonderful people — I saw your beauty, and I’m a much better person for knowing you.

It is wrong of me to here name certain people in thanks and not others because everyone I met gave me so much, but this here list of thanks is just me acknowledging those who made an active change in me. Whether right or wrong, I hold those on this list here on a pedestal, and they need my acknowledgment for what they’ve done.

Ken Newman & Jess McInness — two of my managers who I found so caring, and you each cared for me beyond measure — Jess, you held me when my gran died, and Ken, you were just you, full of knowledge that I used and abused, and the likewise was true. Both of you are wonderful people and were only managers by title, you were really my friends. Thank you for all you’ve done, I owe you.

Jean Higgins — I wanted you to look after my gran when she died, and although my family went to Taylor & Wallis, it is you I wanted because I knew you’d treat her right. You were only briefly a colleague in a sister branch and you fast became a friend. You took me under your wing and you showed me how to do things, and you told me how to say things, and you were always only a phone-call away — you mean much more to me than you may every realise; I will remember our calls to one another and I’ll remember your advice, and your friendship. Thank you so very much — keep in touch!

Leanne Talbot — boy do I miss our chats! We used to put the world to rights so well, and you’re another person who fast became a friend! Thank you so very much for just being you — a coffee sometime?

Michelle Marriott — you took me under your wing, and although our time together may have been tumultuous, it was all passion and you taught me so much. I would love to bump into you again but I can’t seem to find you — I do honestly hope you’re alright, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Gina Cobb & Georgette Cooper — you both trained me, you both gave me your knowledge, and George your knock on the chapel door before you opened it I always did, and Gina — where do I start? You were present during my first suicide, and I won’t ever forget it; I won’t ever forget our laughs. Thank you.

Claire Cobb — what can I honestly say? Cocktails? We’re doing that tomorrow! Honey, I love you so very much — you, like all the rest mentioned, are not a ‘former colleague’, you are a friend. You are a good friend and thank you.

Taff, Matty, Chris Pepper, Jim Underwood & the rest of the guys — you’re all lumped together, I know, but you all did the same for me. You took me under your wings and you guided me in your own ways — we had such banter and so many arguments, and I appreciate it all. Thank you so very much.

Paul Davies & Linda Crowley — Ma & Pa! You both were always the parents that never had to put up with me growing up, and all you ever did was love me and care for me, and give me guidance. Thank you so very much.

Jade Perriman — I suspect, until you leave us to be with your man in Oz, that I’ll still bump into you at the train station — and even after that day I’ll still be looking out for you. Tequila before you go? I wish you all the best, and you’ll always have a friend in me, and I’ll always have cheap holidays! Yeah?

Ingrid, Janet, and Gary  (Bereavement Centre) — you are all wonderful people. From the beginning right through to the end, all you ever did was care for me and do everything in your power to help me. Thank you so very much.

Malcolm Chewter — you were my most favourite of ministers — you took away the stress of music from me, and you treated our families so well, and you always gave me your time. Thank you from them, and thank you for being my friend. Our recent time together working on your campaign changed our way together and I appreciate it fully. Thank you.

Jan Saidy — like you saw last weekend, I’ve got my sparkle back and it is only through you did I realise that I’d lost it. You, like the others, fast became a friend and we worked so well together, and it is onwards and upwards! After seeing you I found an angel penny — thank you for everything.

Claire Head (née Read) — all you did was change a letter (and the pronunciation!) but I’ll always remember your wedding, and how sober I wasn’t… Thank you — my thank you extends to Chris as well, you are both wonderful people who thought to include me in your special day, and who entrusted Jade, Jackie and I with the decorations lol. You, most especially, are fantastic! Never change and keep in touch!

James Wiltshire-Bowles — when I was in need you were there with no questions asked. You supported me when things seemed bleak — you listened and placed yourself aside for me. I will never forget what you have done — thank you so very much for being a good friend.

Kyela Trivett & Jackie Kuczmyjiw (Jacks, I still can’t pronounce your surname — Cus-ee-migee-woo?) — you are both lumped together, of course you are! Both of you never once allowed me to go silently into that dark night — you both called me and insisted I answer, and you never let me resist. When I couldn’t speak to people — when I was actively shutting myself away because I wasn’t at my best — did you care how I appeared? No, not one bit, you only cared about me and I am thankful for this; and it is with your help I got through. I’m glad I found the both of you, and unfortunately, through all you’ve done you’ve both ensured that you’ll never easily get rid of me! Thank you, you’re both very good friends.

There are more I should thank — more Ministers, like Debbie McGregor and Father Paul, who have both showed their measure over the years and recently, by being so kind and caring, and then there’s the likes of Gerry at Milton Cemetery who only ever told me how it was, who only ever put me in my place, disallowing me any chance to hide behind my “I’m fine” — and so many more, but my name retaining skills are shocking. Remember, to everyone I have met, I am grateful for everything you’ve done and I am proud of you and all you do — take care, I’ll see you all around!

I am grateful to the families I have helped and the people I’ve worked with

I am grateful for the support given to me by my friends, my colleagues

Thank you — you are wonderful people, each of you, and I am thankful to have met you all

Until we meet again…

To the sky, my love always

Tom xx

Tomos James