Bearing the weight: Working the dead for a living (Part III)

Carol Overington and Angelia Jordan. Photo: Sophia Ignatidou

Gary Cansell continues his report on life behind the scenes in a south London funeral directors

“She’s here!” calls Jordan, watching the CCTV as a hearse pulls up at the shop’s rear.

She and Overington go through the grey-walled warehouse and watch as bearers Roy Norman and Paul Churchley remove Maureen’s coffin from the hearse. They position her on a trolley wrapped in blue velvet. Its gold tassels dance as they guide her into the lift that connects to the chapel of rest.

Churchley and Norman are members of the six-man short crew. There is a tall crew also. Perched on six shoulders of various heights a coffin would be burdensome and the journey bumpy. Weight distribution is almost always affected when family members help carry their loved ones.

Next Monday Churchley and Norman will help wheel Maureen into St Mary’s Church in Croydon. (Six bearers must carry a coffin, but the church’s chicanes are unnavigable by such a cavalcade.) They will follow David Creamer as he weaves through the mourners, piping Black Bear, a threnody for Maureen. Dressed in smart black suits, they will wait outside in the spring sunshine while Alison Stewart reads Do Not Weep at My Grave, kisses her palm, presses it against her sister’s coffin topped with red and white flowers. They will be outside while David, Maureen’s son, weeps; while Jonathan delivers his eulogy faultlessly, sharing his regret that his love and support never quite matched that of his wife. Finally, they will wheel Maureen back into the hearse, drive her to the crematorium, carry her one last time.

But right now they need cakes from the bakery next door.

“For the first week of the job you can’t eat or sleep,” says Norman, over an iced bun. “We all go through the same thing.”

“Some of the sights you see and smells you smell – my dinner was in the bin every night,” says Churchley. “After a couple of mouthfuls I could see them. I’d go to bed late, close my eyes, and see them laying beside me. That was murder. I didn’t think I was going to last.”

After studying a lifeless face, an eidetic memory often disturbs sleep. But for Jordan and Overington, like any funeral arrangers, the experience has become as quotidian as a cup of tea.

“On my first day I rang my husband when I was on lunch,” says Jordan. “He asked how it was going. I said: ‘Oh, it’s brilliant. I’ve been in and watched an embalming.’ He said: ‘Oh, great. What are you doing now?’ I said: ‘I’m just going out for lunch.’ He said: ‘Tell me you’re joking. How can you eat after seeing that?’”

During her training at head office Overington saw the body of a two-year-old who had died following an horrific accident. It was the one occasion on which a sight really troubled either of them. “I went to sleep and saw his face,” she says. “You don’t expect a child die like that, and I wouldn’t like to see it again, but in our job, if we have to, we have to.” As a concession to the unthinkable, Rowland Brothers arranges funerals for the families of children who have died under the age of 16 without charge.

Betsy, 76, and Matthew, 45, arrive the week of Maureen’s funeral. The perfect audience, they listen in silence as Vivaldi’s Autumn makes a concert hall of the chapel. Matthew holds a peach rose. His hair is short, light brown, threaded with silver strands. Betsy wears a purple jacket with silver buttons. Her hair needs doing.

“Families bring in photographs and say: ‘We want her to look like this’,” says Jordan, picking up her bubblegum pink make-up case. “And you think: that make-up’s not in fashion for one, and the hairstyle! You can’t make them . . .” she pauses, feels for the right word, “alive.”

“Morning Bob, morning Betsy,” says Overington. She wants to warm the tongs but Matthew’s coffin abuts the plug socket. “Are we going to swing them around?”

Jordan shakes her head. “They might come back and haunt us. I’ve a thing about that.” Apart from priests, who look upon the “congregation” in the chapel of rest at all times, the deceased must face the cross. “If we don’t keep them that way I just think something’s going to happen.”

“What are we going to do, then?”

They stop to think while the recorded violinists play più mosso.

A decision is reached: “See ya later, Matthew.” The pair lifts the lid onto his coffin and pushes it into the lift. “You’re going on an adventure.”

They shift Betsy closer to the plug socket. “Her face looks lopsided,” says Jordan, tilting her own head.

Overington places her hands behind Betsy’s head, gently straightens it, adjusting it several times. “Sorry, love,” she says.

“Better,” confirms Jordan.

Overington, who used to be a hairdresser, begins combing Betsy’s thick grey hair. She spends fifteen minutes making soft curls. “We’ve had women in there and we think: God what lovely, lovely hair they’ve got. I hope I’m like that when I get old.”

There are differences between working in a salon and a chapel of rest, she says, matter-of-factly, balancing the tongs on the coffin’s edge. “In this job they keep still. But you’re very restricted, in a confined space. You’re frightened to burn them – even though it’s not going to hurt. I’ve been burnt myself with tongs. Ouch!”

Jordan gently colours Betsy’s colourless lips. “Sometimes it’s really difficult to paint their nails,” she says. “It’s really awkward, but I try and do them all if I can. We can unlock their hands, but sometimes it’s really difficult to put them back together.”

“We’re going to leave you in peace now, Betsy.” Jordan draws the net back across her face. Through it you can see her new hairstyle, her rouged lips. She doesn’t look alive. Nor does she look dead. Matthew is brought back from the lift. If you didn’t know, it would be impossible to accurately age either. And of course, it is impossible to forget their faces.

They exit the chapel and spot an elderly lady in a long pigeon-grey jacket at the front door. The trio chats and laughs until the lady is swallowed up again by the market. Some months ago she bought a pre-paid funeral plan from Rowland Brothers.

“I just told her she shouldn’t cut out smoking. It might be a bad habit, but it’s better than sex.” Overington giggles. “If someone said to me, do you want sex tonight or a packet of fags . . .”

“Can I pinch a fag?”

“I’ll have a packet of fags.”

“Have you got a light?”

Like the elderly lady, British people appear increasingly open about their own deaths. Last year 91,335 pre-paid funeral plans were sold, almost double the number in 2002 when they became regulated by the Funeral Planning Authority. At the beginning of 2010, more than half a million Britons had undrawn plans. Yet the funereal boom is born out of convenience rather than reconciliation, says Slater. “It’s primarily about prearrangement – it’s as, if not more, important than prepayment. It’s putting your affairs in order.”

There is a “mood change”, he adds. “People are less inhibited. Nobody particularly wants to embrace their own mortality, but think back 30 or 40 years, when people made wills thinking as soon as they’d done that their days were numbered.” That more people are arranging their own funerals while still breathing, however, does little to refute the truth that death is a chill to the British spine.

Tony and Brett, Jordan’s and Overington’s husbands respectively, highlight a broader sheepishness. “Tony doesn’t do death at all, he finds it very difficult,” says Jordan. “I don’t want my boy to be like that, I want him to be like me. Death is out there,” she says, “and it’s just waiting for us. It helps you cope when it happens to someone close to you. I’ve lost a hell of a lot of people and I’ve always gone to see them in the chapel of rest, since I was a kid.”

“That’s why she loves the job so much,” says Overington.

“I have to see them.”

“It’s curiosity.”

“It’s a way – especially if they died in pain – to see them in peace. It helps me carry on.”

Overington has a similar domestic story. “When I started the job I used to go home and I wouldn’t shut up about it. Now Brett’s sick of it. And my mum hates it, says she doesn’t want to talk about it because she’s near death-age. I say: ‘Mum, you’re 66 for god’s sake, you’re not death-age yet.’ She says: ‘Well I’m end-scale.’”

When she reaches and exceeds “death-age”, Overington wants to be drawn in a carriage by two horses: one white, the other black. “I’ve told my husband: I don’t care, I want horses, and if I don’t get them I will haunt you.” She leans forward in her black swivel chair. “I will. Not that he believes in all that.”

Overington and Jordan both want to be cremated, partly, they agree, because burning alive would finish the job far speedier than being buried alive. Whatever happens they have each other.

“If we’re still here in our 50s and 60s and one of us goes we’ve got the other to do their best for us,” says Overington. She joins Jordan at the office computer, roaming the Internet in search of the correct spelling of Lynrd Skynrd – “Free Bird” features on the order of service currently in production.

Jordan becomes quickly frustrated, paces up the stairs and onto the parade outside for a break. Five schoolgirls approach wearing blue chequered dresses and white knee-high socks. They stoop unevenly and study the urns in the window as Jordan squints at the late afternoon sun.

“Look at that,” says one of the group, pointing. “I’d buy that for my mum.” She considers for a moment. “But then I’d have to buy one for my dad, too.” Jordan smiles, takes a deep breath and goes inside to confront a band name almost impossible to spell. The girls skip past, talking about something else, leaving in their wake the giggles and squeals of youth.

Click here to read the story from the beginning.

* Some names have been changed.


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