A good send off...
Poppy Mardall, Founder, Poppy’s Funerals
There's nothing that beats the participation of family and friends in creating a meaningful funeral that truly reflects a life lived.
In June 2012 I launched Poppy's Funerals, a modern funeral directors providing families with meaningful, affordable funerals across Greater London and beyond.
Having come from a background in art (I was a Deputy Director at Sotheby's auction house), I definitely never thought I’d end up becoming an undertaker! I knew I wanted to help people in a more critical way - I was volunteering as a Samaritan and then at a hospice - but becoming a funeral director seemed like a mad idea. I'd never seen a dead body before for goodness sake! But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me. I’d never been able to relate to the high street funeral director with the stone-masonry in the window, the black, the pomp, and I suspected many other people felt the same way. I decided that as a young woman I might be able to bring a new perspective to this out-dated world.
Our mission at Poppy’s is to empower and support people to have the funeral that is right for them, rather than telling them what they ‘should’ do. We have supported some amazing families to do some incredible things. A funeral where over a hundred people brought flowers from their gardens in the summer turned into a bed of bright colours on top of a bamboo coffin. A wonderful family took their father on a final boat trip up the Thames after he had died. Another family carried their sister the long distance to her grave by getting the whole congregation – women, children, everyone - to take turns carrying her willow coffin. It was an incredible sight. The most powerful funerals are always those where we have been able to support a family to do what they want, often after they have been told it's not possible by other funeral directors. There's nothing that beats the participation of family and friends in creating a meaningful funeral that truly reflects a life lived.
A huge amount of our energy is spent challenging poor standards of care within the industry. Many of us saw the incredibly disturbing Channel 4 Dispatches and ITV Exposure documentaries showing stomach-churning undercover footage revealing appalling behaviour: racial abuse towards the dead, people being left on the floor when refrigerated space was full and putting clothes intended for dressing the body in a plastic bag at the foot of a coffin. It shows a hideous lad culture, which desperately needs to change.
At Poppy’s we take a kind, natural approach to the body. We call the people in our care by their own names: they are Jane or Patrick or Sue; they are never the anonymous ‘deceased’.You had a name in life – why do you lose that name, and your gender, as soon as you die? We don’t embalm (a much more invasive process than many people realise).We also treat the living with honesty, care and respect.We visit families at home - I think it’s really important that the conversation happens on their turf - where they are most comfortable and in control. Our whole focus is on giving people choice.
Talk, talk, talk about it
A lot of our work is trying to break down the taboo surrounding death and dying. As a culture, we have a superstition that if we talk about death and our funeral, we will somehow bring it on ourselves. I genuinely think a lot of people have no idea they are going to die. This is mad! It's the one democratic fate that we all have in common. I think families should talk about death and dying like they talk about everything else - from birth. It's not a dirty subject to be kept behind closed doors.
And if we don’t talk about it, we leave the people who will be responsible for organising our funerals in a really horrible situation. There's a reason that buying a funeral is known as a 'distress purchase'. You haven't done it before. The vast majority of people only speak to one funeral director and take their advice as fact. If you haven't given your children, or executors, explicit information about what you’d want for yourself, you haven't given them 'permission' to do things your way. The tragedy we see on a regular basis is the person who was all about 'no fuss' in life - the sort of person who regularly calls us and says, 'put me in a cardboard coffin. I don't want money wasted on bells and whistles' - it's highly likely that in the funeral director's office, the family will feel pressurised to buy an expensive funeral. And in the funeral industry, expensive definitely doesn't mean good or meaningful.
The clinicians role
The nursing profession has such an important role to play in allowing people to talk openly about dying and what happens after death. So many people are made to feel these conversations are not acceptable – not acceptable to their children, or to their friends. We get regular calls from people who say, ‘Hi, my name’s Ron and I’m calling to talk about my demise.’ Ron doesn’t necessarily feel able to talk to the people around him about death and dying. Maybe he doesn’t have anyone. Maybe he has children and friends who make it clear they don’t want to hear it. So Ron’s stuck on his own with it. And he calls us, which is fantastic. But not every funeral director has Ron’s best interests at heart. And Ron doesn’t want to be sold a funeral plan, or an expensive coffin. He just wants to chat about life and death with someone he trusts. He wants good, solid, objective information and to know a bit more about what might happen to him when he dies. Nurses are well trusted, well respected and they know about death and dying. They are perfectly placed to have these conversations.
One thing we’re passionate about is busting the myths around what is possible after death. In the last year two years we’ve given countless free ‘myth-busting’ talks to nurses, doctors, carers and members of the public across the South East. The idea is to open up a discussion about what is possible around death and funerals to equip staff with transparent, objective information. It is also a great opportunity for people to ask us absolutely anything about what happens after death including: How can costs be kept down? What is embalming and is it necessary? Can a family do the funeral themselves? And everything in between. There is no question we won't answer.
Since we launched (in June 2012), we’ve been overwhelmed by the reaction to our approach. We recently won the Good Funeral Award for Most Promising New Funeral Director. We've had extensive national press  including features in The Independent, The Daily Mail, Cosmopolitan, Tatler, Stylist, along with interviews on Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’ and ‘You and Yours’. We've had overwhelming feedback from the families we’ve helped, with a consistent 5 star rating on the independent ratings website, Funeral Advisor E.
If you’re based in London and the South-East and you think this is something your team might benefit from, please do get in touch. We’d love to come to talk to you – just call us on 020 3589 4726.
The most powerful funerals are always those where we have been able to support a family to do what they want, often after they have been told it's not possible by other funeral directors.