When I started out in the funeral business in Guernsey in 1953, it was just myself and my wife Monica. By the time I retired 20 years ago, I calculated I had probably dealt with over 10,000 funerals. Couple this with my role as a Pastor of a local chapel and I’ve literally seen whole families through all life’s stages, both happy and sad. It’s been such a privilege to have spent time with and got to know so many people, from all walks of life. If I look back on my working funeral director’s life, it is the lasting friendships I have made with so very many people that has been one of the highlights.
And we are offering a service that everyone, no matter their background or income level, will use one day. You come in to contact with a complete cross-section of this island’s community, including those who could well be described as poor. I think that’s something not many people get to see in their working life. It may be hidden but it is there in this island, and it serves as a regular reminder that whilst we are extremely lucky to live in seemingly, such a beautiful and prosperous community, there are others that do not share that level of comfort. That is something I have always felt humbling.
Like every profession, providing funerals has gone through many changes. Up until the 1960s the body of the deceased usually was kept in the home of the family. Funeral homes started fitting refrigerators and have had to continually upgrade their facilities. As part of this process Beckford’s moved into new purpose-built premises in 2011. There’s definitely been a whole Health & Safety change with strict guidelines on everything from how a coffin is lifted, to cleanliness standards. Beckford’s is a member of SAIF (Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors) who regularly audit their members to ensure standards and procedures are maintained. However, it is up to each member to have a control structure that makes health and safety a priority.
People’s expectations have also changed over the years such as the type of funeral including very importantly the music they choose (no longer just hymns) and the type of casket they choose – besides the traditional wooden ones, you can now have wicker, biodegradable and colourful caskets, including images printed on the sides. And in the last 10-20 years people have started using pop songs at funerals when it was always traditional hymns such as The Old Rugged Cross and Amazing Grace.
The willingness now of people to plan funerals is a welcome improvement. It’s one stress point less if the family left behind know exactly what the deceased wishes were. The traditional family structure has evolved into divorces, remarriages, step-children and so on. Planning your funeral wishes takes away many potential family disagreements and makes it crystal clear what the deceased wanted.
I’ve definitely seen an increase in cremations. I’m sure this has to do with the increase in burial costs, plus land space in Guernsey is limited. It costs £4,409 for a burial in St Peter Port but a cremation is just £570. Cremations have also given people the freedom to scatter their loved one’s ashes at sea, or under an apple tree or a favourite spot in their garden.
I think it is a shame that the estimated £4 million that will be spent on new cremation facilities at Le Foulon, will not provide greater and easier access for mourners. Let us not forget that the purpose of a funeral, apart from giving a loved one a fitting ‘send off’, is to provide comfort for those who mourn. I think it’s a missed opportunity that the plans for the new crematorium do not include a more suitable site with better access for the aged and the infirm. Let us remember that the average age of funeral attendees is likely to be over 60 years old some of which will not be the most agile.
When I started out, there were few funeral directors on the island and only one had their own hearse – we had to hire a Ford Cardinal from the hearse owner and this carried on until about the 1980s when more funeral directors themselves then purchased their own hearses. I know horse and carriages are quite popular for carrying coffins but here they never really worked. This is because we have far more traffic and we have some very steep and narrow lanes on the island, making some inaccessible or difficult for a horse and cart.
Being a funeral director was and is a way of life, rather than just a job. Around 25% of the calls we receive about the death of a loved one, occur in the night. I never found it an inconvenience to get out of bed and go to see people. In contrast, it has been an utter privilege to provide comfort and support to people in their darkest hours.
Significant memories include one I can remember vividly is when the freight ship, Prosperity ran aground off the west coast in January 1974 and tragically, all 18 souls aboard died. We were involved with the deceased and whilst a few of the bodies were repatriated, the majority now lie where we buried them in Le Foulon cemetery.
One thing that has never changed though is the reason why we are in business: to give the family the funeral their loved one would have wanted. You cannot do this without care and empathy for people. That is the most important thing in this work and in fact life.
Meanwhile, Beckford’s continues as Guernsey’s longest running funeral directors under the care of my daughter Jane. Retirement has allowed me to retire to my first trade – joinery – which I learnt in Yorkshire when I was evacuated there as a child during the war. I also enjoy spending time keeping the garden colourful and feel very fortunate that today, Monday 6th August Monica and I are celebrating our 65th wedding anniversary.
That’s only four days before my 92nd birthday. I will probably spend that day in my garden or if it’s not good weather in my workshop or reading which is a hobby I love. Even at 92 I like to keep busy!