Vivaldi and flowers: Working the dead for a living (Part I)

Carol Overington and Angelia Jordan. Photo: Sophia Ignatidou

“People think you’ve either got to be sick or not all there to work with dead people,” says Carol Overington. “As soon as you say you’re a funeral arranger . . .” She glances sideways at Angelia Jordan, with whom she runs this south London funeral directors. The pair sings out an “Euuuuugh!” that sounds more delighted than disgusted.

“Normally people look up, see what you are, put their heads down and shuffle off,” says Jordan, whose ten-year-old son Lewis calls her The Undertaker, after an American wrestler. “My husband thinks I’m a freak. I can’t talk about work at home. He goes: ‘Shut up, I don’t want to know.’ But my son thinks it’s fascinating. He says: ‘I don’t know how you can touch them, though, mum.’ When he’s older he’ll understand, I tell him.”

The telephone rings. “Good afternoon, Rowland Brothers.”

When most 15-year-old girls were dreaming about Spandau Ballet and Tom Cruise, Jordan, now 41, dreamt of working in the funeral business. Her dream came true last year when Rowland Brothers’ New Addington branch opened, and the building where people once bought fruit and vegetables became the last place they wanted to shop.

Rowland Brothers is bracketed on this dog-eared parade by Greggs bakers and William Hill. On Tuesdays and Fridays a market pops up in the car park across the street, purveying pigs’ ears (ten for £6), watches, bread, and potted plants. Over the road sits the unfussy Addington Community Centre, where locals come to learn Ceroc – a fusion of salsa and jive – and where Jordan attends spiritualist meetings every fortnight. Neither she nor 39-year-old Overington believes death to be the full stop to life’s line: more a comma, or semi-colon.

Rowland Brothers was founded by brothers Walter and Alfred in 1873, and currently employs four generations of Rowlands. New Addington is its fifth branch, yet Jordan and Overington protect the warmth specific to family run businesses. The deceased benefit as much as grieving families from their care.

“You alright, Walter?”

Walter, 82, lived around the corner from Jordan. Sunlight spills into the room where he lies, through stained glass windows covered in pink roses. Flanking a silver cross near Walter’s feet stands a pair of stout candles. A splash of flowers interrupts the room’s cream walls.

“Sorry to bother you again, Walter.”

Besides the ladies’ bright tones, the only sound in the chapel is courtesy of Nigel Kennedy and the English Chamber Orchestra performing Winter from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – music plays whenever the chapel is occupied. Jordan bought this CD and a classic crooner collection for 99p at the neighbouring pound store; Sinatra, Martin and Crosby were deemed inappropriate and gather dust in the office downstairs.

“I like your haircut. And your tan looks very nice. It’s going better than mine!”

Walter is tall, thin, clean-shaven, with neatly cropped salt and pepper hair. Folded across his chest are his hands, fingers interlocked, the tanned skin taught across the bones, flecked with red spots. His temples are sunken, his nose ridged. An almost smile stretches across his freckled face, pitched somewhere between grace and indifference. His chin butts out with quiet pride.

A friend will visit Walter this afternoon. There are repeated checks before that happens. “We might go into the chapel in the morning and they’re fine, but when someone comes in we can’t let them go right in,” says Jordan. “We sit them down and check the deceased. In five minutes something might have happened.”

She draws the netting back over Walter’s face – coffins remain open, it would be too claustrophobic otherwise, she explains.

“See ya later, Walter.” Gently they close the chapel door.

In the week following Walter’s stay, the last thing Jordan does at work every evening is wish Jean, who died aged 84, goodnight. Every morning, she unlocks the chapel and says: “Morning, Jean,” and the violins play once more.

“It’s got to be awful being stuck in there all alone,” she says. A cross, bearing Jean’s name and age, rests against a wall in the corner of the office. “I’d hate it if I was laying there and someone completely ignored me. Through the day I’ll pop in and say: ‘Sorry no one’s been to see you, someone will be in soon.’ You never know, they might be listening.” She laughs. “I think: Okay, you’re dead, but your body is there, so I’m still going to talk to you. But if anyone ever answered me back I’d be out of there like a shot!”

A buzzer announces a string of figures dressed in black on the office’s CCTV screen, which sits on a desk covered in pots bursting with biros, papers, calculators, rulers. Jordan dashes upstairs to greet Jean’s family. They wanted to view her in the chapel of rest, but illnesses and treatments, and on occasion simply time, cause bodies to deteriorate so much that families are advised against seeing them. Jean’s family had brought clothes for her to wear. But as she wasn’t viewable, they hang on a peg in the office. The family spends twenty minutes sitting with her coffin. Had they still wanted to view, they would have been asked to sign a declaration, absolving Rowland Brothers from blame should the sight cause distress.

Jordan returns and settles herself on a cream leather sofa. Hers, she says, is a job that should assuage the jolt of death. “You try and bring a little bit of lightness in,” she says, “because it’s the worst thing in the world they’ve come in to do. Once you have the information you need, you can introduce different subjects, maybe talk about the person, what they were like. Sometimes it helps people to have a good old natter about them.

“You need to care about people to do this job. You have to be open and strong – for the families. It’s no good you sitting there crying when they’re crying their eyes out.”

Overington, too, uses the word “lightness”. “We’re like counsellors sometimes,” she says. “We’re dealing with grief. A lady who came in yesterday to see her husband was so tearful afterwards that I told her to stay and sit down. We chatted for an hour. She said: ‘I’m so glad you did that. The mood I was in, I could’ve gone out and hit somebody.’” (to be continued…)

Read Part II tomorrow on Eastlondonlines


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