Till death do us part: Working the dead for a living (Part II)

Carol Overington and Angelia Jordan. Photo: Sophia Ignatidou

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

Perched on high heels, Jordan and Overington both wear glasses, gold hoop earrings and bracelets. Blonde highlights streak through their hair. They are both Aries, and, while explaining various forms, both point with their pinkies rather than index fingers. Jordan paints her nails a muted purple, likes Tom Jones – somewhat apologetically – and Hollyoaks (“Except I’m jealous because they’re all beautiful and have stunning figures.”).

Overington also likes “her soaps”, yet inveighs against facile onscreen funerals, such as the one held for Blanche Hunt in Coronation Street earlier this year. Setting down a pack of lime and orange Tic Tacs and Tangy Cheese Doritos on a table, she expatiates on the virtues of bacon and pork chops. Her three children were the result of three power cuts, she says. Bailey, her five-year-old, is obsessed with Lady Gaga.

The ladies represent a more general shift in the funeral business. According to Alan Slater, chief executive of the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), “the times are changing. The elderly funeral director who looked like Avram Grant, very sombre, very dour, almost Uriah Heepish – it’s just completely changed.”

Members of the NAFD conduct 450,000 funerals in Britain annually, and while those arranging them might have cheered up, the drama surrounding death remains, Slater says. “A funeral, in many ways, can be seen as street theatre. I don’t mean that in a lighthearted way.”

Jonathan Atkinson stepped into Rowland Brothers in the early Spring, bringing his own production. It would be anything but lighthearted.

It was beneath a winter sky in 1999 that Maureen and Jonathan’s eyes first met. Jonathan, stationed with the Territorial Army in Bosnia, had been handed a lonely-hearts advert cut from Scotland’s Sunday Post. For months he wrote and received billets-doux. Maureen, teaching at the time in Swindon, had sent him a photograph. It was of somebody else.

Walking along Buckingham Palace Road, in the distance Jonathan saw the “slightly dumpy” lady who would become his wife. She toted shopping bags, dressed unprepossessingly, and was, he soon realised, two teeth short of a full compliment. “To my eternal shame,” he says, “the thought that went through my mind was: please, God, let it not be her.”

A decade later, as the 58-year-old runs his hands over her coffin, kissing it, whispering “Rest in peace; it’s dreadful that you went so young”, it’s easy to imagine the same thought troubling him. Maureen was 54 when her body capitulated to a combination of large granular lymphocytes (a mild form of leukemia), thyroidism, diabetes, an enlarged heart, and, finally, sepsis.

On that first meeting the pair travelled along the Thames to Greenwich. They shared a meal, swapped stories, and began to fall in love. Here, inside the chapel of rest, they spend a few minutes alone together one last time. Only this time Maureen cannot see Jonathan. And despite his wishes, nor can Jonathan see Maureen, settling for a mahogany coffin and a name etched onto a square of gold on its lid.

The couple had spoken irreverently about funeral plans prior to Maureen’s death. “She always said: ‘When I go, just put me out for the dustman, or put me in a shoe box,’” says Jonathan, his languorous voice deepened by a persistent cold. However, Overington and Jordan ensured the service would be fitter for one loved by so many, including the sister, mother and son she left behind.

“It’s very reassuring to have people like Angelia and Carol who will let you give your own ideas about the funeral arrangement,” says Jonathan. “Their input is not heavy handed, it’s very sympathetic. Many people find it difficult to express their thoughts to somebody who’s grieving. Often when I’ve been in to see Angela I’ve have a laugh and a joke. My way of coping, maybe.”

Black Bear, Aberdeen-born Maureen’s favourite song, will be piped at her funeral, along with Flower of Scotland. “It’s got Scottish rugby team connotations,” Jonathan laughs. “But I decided she should have it, because she was my flower of Scotland.” He will return his flower to the ground from whence it sprung.

“Is he having the ashes buried with her mum?” Overington asks.

“No,” says Jordan. “Her mum’s still alive.”

“Is it her dad?”

“I don’t know, yet.”

The latest Robbie Williams single comes on the radio. “Since you went away my heart breaks every day,” he sings.

Maureen’s wedding ring will be dropped into the urn after the cremation, otherwise it will come out “like a little nugget,” says Overington. Jonathan had brought in a brooch and a watch for his wife to wear, along with a velvet trouser suit. The suit hangs, like Jean’s, on a clothes peg in the office, in a Clinton Cards carrier bag.

Jordan lost her mother, June Tarry, two and a half years ago, experiencing first hand the trauma of seeing a loved one disfigured by illness and medicine. Her mother’s face was severely swollen. “It didn’t look anything like my mum, although I knew it was her. I have to live with that memory. It’s not nice, so I tell families to think on that, and try to remember their loved ones how they were. Because of what happened with my mum, when we have to advise people against viewing, they realise I’m not giving them any old flannel.”

Along with understanding, the empathy Jordan exudes is one of the fundamental qualities of a good funeral arranger, argues Slater. “Our role is to take away, as much as possible, not the personal grief, but the worry from the family. You are dealing with people who’ve been emotionally traumatised in many cases.”

That empathy is the keystone of their jobs explains why Jordan and Overington both answered yes when their boss David Collins invited them to see a cremation.

“Before, I’d always assume the deceased was removed from the coffin before they cremated it,” says Overington. “But now we’ve seen what happens. A family today asked if they’d take dad out of the coffin.”

“I had to make sure the deceased was in there,” says Jordan, her eyes sparkling. “I texted my dad: ‘I’ve spent the day at the crem today, dad!’ He wrote back: ‘You need to get a life, hon.’”

The reply might easily have come from her sister, Jordan explains. “She doesn’t want anything to do with death, full stop. She won’t talk about it, can’t believe I do what I do.”

“If we’ve got someone in the chapel she legs it downstairs,” says Overington. “It’s each to their own. I’d rather sit in with a deceased in the chapel of rest than go to the dentist. But I couldn’t do what the funeral directors do. They have to dress the deceased.”

Read Part III tomorrow on Eastlondonlines.co.uk

Go back to Part I by clicking here.


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