LOCAL UNDERTAKER ON THE BEST WAY TO SAY GOODBYE
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
How long have you worked here?
I've worked (at Barnes & Sons) on the Askew Road since 2006, but I've known the area since the 70s because my best friend lived here. I grew up in Ealing for my sins. It used to be posh but now it's horrible, nothing but takeaways and pound shops.
As a child did you dream of being an undertaker?
No, I wanted to work with children. I used to be extremely shy. When I left school, my Daddy said you've got to work in a shop to learn how to communicate. I cried my eyes out at first, but he was right.
The dead don't hurt you:
it's the living that cause you harm
Are your parents in the undertaking business?
No. They're both deceased now. Daddy was a security guard, but he was very gentle, so laid-back. I only heard him raise his voice once. Mum worked for Ealing Council. I had 5 brothers. I was the only girl, the baby. At first, I was the goal post or the cricket stumps, but I became a real tomboy. When the boys climbed trees, they said, you either stand there or climb. So, I climbed. It's strange because as an adult I developed a terrible fear of heights. I once abseiled down Guy's Hospital tower for charity and I don't know how I did it.
How did you get into the funeral business?
I used to work for Roadpeace, a charity that supports those injured and bereaved by road traffic incidents. It was lottery funded and the money ran out so I was looking for work. I walked into the employment agency and they offered this.
Did anyone advise against it?
No. In fact, people said, you'll be good at that, you're good with people.
Where did you learn the sensitivity to deal with the bereaved?
I'm very down to earth. What you see is what you get. When people walk in here they have to trust you quickly. They tell you things about their loved ones and themselves that they don't tell anyone else. My job is to make a sad time easier. If I don't make them laugh by the end of our first meeting I feel as if I've failed them.
What's more popular, burial or cremation?
Burial. There's a strong Irish and West Indian community here. It's their tradition to be buried to return the body to the earth. A lot of the older priests won't step foot in a crematorium.
Which is cheaper?
Cremation. That's what I've chosen.
What does the average funeral cost?
You're looking at £4,000 approximately.
Are there still pauper's funerals?
They're called community or public funerals now. Most cemeteries have a public space. Sometimes 5 people are buried in 1 grave. It's not just vagrants. Some old people have no one. People don't notice their neighbours like we used to.
Have the tombstones that line a cemetery's perimeter been moved there to make space?
Generally, you buy your plot for a number of years. In Hammersmith and Fulham, it's 75. If no family renews the plot, then it's reclaimed.
What's the strangest funeral request you've had?
A friend of mine started her funeral with Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead from The Wizard of Oz. And for her committal, Burn, Baby, Burn. People put all sorts of things on top of their coffin: guitars, scooters, skateboards. There are too many people dying young.
Any moments of black humour during a funeral?
All the time. One gentleman wanted the pallbearers to wear pink while they carried in his coffin singing, Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work we go! And when my daughter was six, the organ started playing Morning Has Broken, and she called out, I know this one. Everyone laughed.
Has anyone fallen into the grave?
No, but once we had to catch a celebrant when he passed out.
Have any coffins accidentally opened?
No. It couldn't happen. They're screwed down.
Is it true pacemakers are removed before a cremation?
Yes, or they'd explode and damage the cremator. Any metal must be removed. It's all done like an operation, very dignified.
Can all of a cremated body fit into the urn?
Yes. You get back all your loved one, plus the coffin and anything inside, photos, letters and cards. A full urn is quite heavy, even with tiny people. I've had people tell me, they weighed less when they were alive. It's a myth you get back only part of them or they're mixed with other ashes. At Mortlake, you can go behind the scenes and see for yourself.
What's the future of undertaking? Will undertaking go online like everything else?
You can do a DIY funeral. One gentleman recently came to me with a coffin he'd bought online and we got everything ready, but it had no lining and the top didn't fit. You must have the right paperwork. It's not difficult, but it's time-consuming. Most people don't want to be thinking about paperwork, but some need the distraction.
What question about your job are you most asked?
Aren't you scared? The answer is no. The dead don't hurt you: it's the living that cause you harm. I think that's the first time I've ever referred to them as the dead. I like to think of them as my guests. They're sleeping. If they stay overnight in the chapel of rest, when I come to work, I say good morning and I put on their favourite music. When I do their hair, or nails or makeup, I tell them what I'm doing. I never do anything without the family's permission and I ask for a picture so I can make them look like them.
Do you believe in life after death?
No. I believe you have a spirit.
Do you believe in ghosts?
I believe in spirits.
What's the timescale between death and burial or cremation?
Usually 2 weeks, but I've waited as long as 2 months. Sometimes the shock stops the relatives dealing with it. That's when you have to coax them to move on. You have to make sure they're looking after themselves, that they're eating properly. I always phone a couple of months after to make sure they're okay. Sometimes I feel like a counsellor and a nutritionist.
If you weren't doing this, what would be your dream job?
I still adore children, but I have 11 grandchildren for that. I'd like to do more at the end-of-life stage, helping people make their last moments as happy as they can be.
Thank you, Maureen. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.