New horizons in farewells – The modern funeral and the rise of the lady funeral director

Words by:
Matt Limb OBE
Featured in:
April 2024

Matt Limb OBE gains an insight into the changing face of funeral services and how we can help our loved ones at a very difficult time.

A funeral is something we will all at some point in our lives be involved with – even if it is our own. Yet today we still have an almost Victorian attitude to the subject, in that they are seen but never spoken about.  But funeral planning can be the opportunity to personalise our final farewell, to help our loved ones in the face of grief.  In essence, funerals are not for the dead, but for the living; they serve as a poignant reminder of a cherished life.

I feel incredibly lucky with my own parents as they both spoke openly about their wishes. It was far from a comfortable discussion, but I remember my father saying you need to know, and it needs to be told.

Then, when that sad day arrived, I realised just how beneficial it was to know their requests and desires.

I recently went through this again when a close member of the family passed away. My eyes were opened following a chat with the funeral directors. They told me of a family that had no idea what was wanted, resulting in a four-hour tearful discussion.

But because we do not talk about funerals, especially our own, something may have slipped by without you noticing: funerals have changed. I first saw this a couple of years ago, when I read the eulogy for a good friend. During the service it dawned on me that funerals are very much about celebrating the life of the person, rather than mourning their loss. Today it is acceptable to have some humour during the service, and you do not have to wear the traditional black, while remaining respectful.

So, in planning for the recent service, I knew it would not be a down-hearted moment, but a commemoration of more than 80 years of an active and busy life. But there was still more for me to learn, which I realised as I stood waiting for the cars to arrive at the crematorium. Getting out of the lead car was the funeral director. I expected the stereotypical tall, dour, elderly gentleman in a well-worn dark suit with a high collar and greying mutton chop sideburns, likely to communicate with little more than a grunt…

None of it. I watched as a young lady exited the car, little more than 5ft tall and not yet 30 years of age. It was unexpected and if I am honest, I was not prepared for it. Dressed immaculately from head to toe with a top hat, she carried a silver-topped cane, took a pocket watch from her waistcoat, paused dramatically as she checked the time and then nodded to the driver as she walked in front of the cars for the last few hundred yards to the crematorium entrance. That is when I met Toni. During the next half hour, she directed a service with all the necessary reverence, but with a little humour too, as all who gathered had their own thoughts and memories.

A few days after the funeral I went to pass on my thanks to Toni and her team, and we started to chat. I simply had to ask her about being a lady funeral director and why she decided on this career path. 

In her words she had been a Lincoln girl all her life, living and going to school in the city. Like many people, she did not really know what she wanted to do after leaving school. A career in media was on the cards, as she had studied photography, but it was a lifelong desire to explore and travel that persuaded her to look at a future in travel and tourism, with the possibility of working as part of a cabin crew. Sadly that career option was cut short owing to her height. University was still a choice, but to do what? Sensibly Toni had no intention of taking a degree in something she did not want to continue with as a career. The short-term answer was to get a local job, have a think about it, and then decide.

A short walking distance from home was a residential care home and Toni soon followed her grandmother, working shifts at the home – there were still people in the home who could remember her Nan, who had worked there several years before. Toni’s mother in turn worked in care, but in the more specialised and dedicated palliative care sector. Toni settled into the industry and found great satisfaction in helping the residents.

Toni accepted that for many in the care home it was end-of-life care they required, and tearfully told me how she had experienced caring for people in their final days, even final hours, recalling people who passed away while holding her hand. Soon Toni started to work in a local hospice, often alongside her mum, which she did for almost a year whilst still doing shifts at the care home. When two gentlemen from a funeral home came to collect an elderly resident who had passed away, she started talking to them.

She had always been intrigued as to what happened next. So, at the age of just 22, Toni started working in the funeral industry, first as a receptionist then helping with the funeral preparations.

She admitted missing the care home, but one of the reasons she stepped away is that care homes and the care industry are massively understaffed and hugely underpaid, plus they aren’t recognised for the work that they do – something with which I know we would all concur. Soon Toni was undertaking an apprenticeship in funeral arranging and at that point realised this was her future – in her words, she cannot see herself doing anything else in her life, adding that if she can make a difficult time easier for the family, she has done exactly what she hoped to do. But it was a great learning curve, admitting there is so much that goes into planning a funeral service. 

It’s not just the funeral directors involved; they are liaising with the civil celebrant or minister of the church depending on the type of service and the person leading it. For burials, is the church responsible for the burial ground, or is it a parish council or a city cemetery? It all falls to the funeral director to bring them all together.

Sadly, Toni did not finish her apprenticeship as the company went into administration, forcing her to find a new start in the industry.  She achieved this with a move to one of the oldest funeral businesses in Lincoln, originally started in 1909 by Albert Priestley who was joined by his son Thomas, often known as Tom. The business was still called Albert Priestley until the mid-1960s when Tom went into business with Len Cockett, and Priestley and Cockett was established.

Toni went on to chat about the modern-day funeral, which can be arranged however the family would like, within reason. But regardless of whether it’s a simple and straightforward service, or it has lots of detail and very modern aspects, everybody deserves absolute respect and dignity.

Looking at my watch, I knew it was time to make a move and thank Toni, not only for the service she conducted for the family but also for giving me an insight into the funeral industry. Before leaving, I asked if there was a message she would pass on to anyone who has not thought about their own funeral.  The reply was simple: “Talk to your family and loved ones about what you would like and why. Having witnessed it so many times, it will make it much easier for them when that sad day arrives.”

I would never have expected a family funeral to offer such a life lesson to me, but it became very clear that a well-planned funeral, or even just shared wishes and desires, is a gift we can all leave to our loved ones. It will ease a great burden during a very difficult time and in doing so will allow those remaining to focus on remembering, making the funeral a transition to a treasured memory and a reminder to everyone involved to live fully and make every moment count.

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