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Becky Perry

Cheerful Undertaker

Text by Penny Martin
Portraits by Chris Rhodes
Issue nº 25, Spring & Summer 2022

At 10, Becky Perry knew she wanted a life in death. From the hearse of the year show at 12 and work experience lining coffins to becoming a fully fledged funeral director, the eternal optimist from Salisbury sees undertaking as more than just work: it’s a vocation. Becky, 36, dares to bring death into the open, helping to ensure that everyone involved has the best experience. If that means starting the conversation long before the event, so be it. There’s so much more to funerals than hymns and a booze-up. Go out with a bang.

Penny Martin: Is it uncommon to meet a female undertaker?

Becky Perry: Not any more. It was when I started, when I was 17. I’m 36, so that was in 2002.

PM: You knew in your teens that you wanted to go into funerals?

BP: Probably from about 10. My mum is a cancer nurse. I think it progressed alongside that, possibly. I went to the hearse of the year show when I was 12.

PM: The hearse of the year? What on earth?

BP: It was run at the Beaulieu motor museum in Hampshire. A local funeral director, a car fanatic, had set up this show with vintage hearses, horse-drawn hearses, new hearses… I took a picture of every car, I spoke to every person. One chap said to me, “Keep in touch, and when you’re a bit older…” I kept in touch, and he gave me a job when I was 18. But it was work experience when I was at school that cemented it all for me.

PM: Your school must have been a bit surprised!

BP: My school refused to arrange it, so my mum helped me. It was at a local funeral director’s in Southampton run by a lady, Marjorie Whitely, who was just about to retire. She was phenomenal. Absolutely inspiring. But she wasn’t sure how much to involve me to be sure I wasn’t distressed. I said, “I need to know if I can do this. I need to see enough to know if I am comfortable.” And she opened up the business to me, with lots of support – she didn’t just chuck me in at the deep end.

PM: You surely must have been the youngest person she had ever worked with. What happened on the first day?

BP: The first day was in the office, doing paperwork, and from there it went on to preparing the coffins, lining them and engraving the plates. And then into caring for the deceased. Not on the first day, but it progressed to helping the other team members to dress somebody.

PM: Had you had seen a dead body before?

BP: No. I can close my eyes and see her now, in the mortuary, on the embalming table with a sheet over her. Marjorie said, “Are you sure you’re ready?” And I said yes, and she explained that Veronica had had a double mastectomy and so might look a bit strange. And that she had lost her hair as well. She was preparing me, but no part of me felt uncomfortable or odd. I just looked and saw that she was peaceful. I felt sad that she had been through so much, but not disturbed or distressed or upset at all. And in that moment I knew this wasn’t going to be a problem for me.

PM: How long was the work experience?

BP: I was initially there for two weeks, but I stayed for the summer. Marjorie would take me out on the funerals, watching and observing; going to hospitals to collect the deceased; all of it. It was an incredible experience. I fell in love with it.

PM: What exactly did you fall in love with?

BP: Nothing to do with the deceased! It was just Marjorie. I saw the interactions she had with the families. When they left the office, they’d look at her and say, “Thank you. You have no idea what you have done to help us.” That’s the feeling that I really connected with. The preparation side of it was interesting, but it wasn’t what I wanted from the role. I wanted to help people through that time, because I felt I had the strength to do it, and I had some of the equipment. My mum had given me comfort in talking about death, understanding death, realising that we are all going to die.

PM: You make it sound like a vocation, like becoming a priest.

BP: It feels that way. It feels like what I’m meant to do, what I’m here for.

PM: I called you an undertaker, but you say funeral director. What’s the difference?

BP: I think “funeral director” indicates that I coordinate the day. It’s like planning a wedding in two weeks flat. A funeral has all the same features, and it’s not just that day either – there are lots of things afterwards, with the ashes, wakes and things. “Undertaker” feels like a very old-fashioned word.

PM: You did formal training at Salisbury College of Funeral Sciences, didn’t you?

BP: There used to be a Portakabin at the back where a lady called Sheila Dicks taught embalming and funeral directing and all that went with it. I did my kind of foundation certificate with them when I was 18 – there weren’t any official qualifications for it. It was really interesting, but a little bit old-fashioned, looking back. They were quite pro-embalming. It’s not really necessary in this country.

PM: Because we’re a cold country and the body decomposes more slowly?

BP: Yes. It’s invasive, and the chemicals they use are awful. That practice came from America. Marjorie didn’t do a lot of it; she would spend more time presenting someone, without cutting open their arteries and pumping them full of chemicals. You can achieve a similar effect if you just take some time with certain make-up and making sure people are clean, with their hair washed. I mean if someone is going abroad, they have to be embalmed, legally. And if someone is going to rest at home, I do recommend it.

PM: Who still shows the body at home? Is that mainly Catholics?

BP: Travelling communities. Not even Catholics do any more. Maybe Irish Catholics might.

PM: On the west coast of Scotland they do.

BP: I like it. Because it is death in the community: the whole family is there, the children are there. It is a much healthier way for them to understand it. If children are unprepared for death, they are fearful of it for their whole life. My friends’ kids always ask me questions about it, ringing me up, going, “Aunty Becky, what do you do with the bodies?” And I will explain in the best way that they can understand.

PM: Do you encourage people to make contact with the body?

BP: If they’re with me when I’m preparing them, yes. Or once the body is in the coffin.

PM: Can it be frightening for people to find the body is stiff?

BP: It can be, but it is another part of our way of understanding that they are dead, which we have stopped doing. We have clinicalised it. My mum used to spend hours preparing the body with families present, and often they would ask, “Can I help?” And she would go, “Of course. Just give them a hand massage, or maybe pop their socks on.”

PM: What are you doing when you are massaging the hands?

BP: They do get rigor mortis, and the movement of the muscles and the joints will break that down and make them soft and supple again. It’s a nicer hand to hold.

PM: When did you first hear about death?

BP: When my grandma died. I was about five. And my mum wouldn’t let me go to the funeral. She felt she was protecting me. But I needed to go. I understood what death was – she didn’t think I did, but I really did. So when people say to me, “I’m not letting my daughter come,” I say, “Have you asked her?”

Here, Becky wears her funeral director’s uniform, which includes a traditional frock coat and short top hat.

“It’s like planning a wedding in two weeks flat. A funeral has all the same features.”

PM: Were you brought up in a spiritual household?

BP: Spiritual, yes, but not religious. My dad was very interested in the energy all around us. He used to like dowsing.

PM: With twigs?

BP: More the stones and things, just trying to feel energy. He and I used to talk about the big things in life, which was really nice.

PM: You mention him in the past tense. Is he no longer around?

BP: No, no. He passed away five years ago. He had pancreatic cancer. He was ill for about 18 months. He kind of gave me a gift when he left, because it made me a better funeral director. It made me understand, really understand, what it’s like, because he’s the first person I lost as an adult.

PM: I noticed you used the word “die” when you mentioned your grandma, but you just said your dad “passed away”. Is the language significant?

BP: It is. I use both, adapting my language according to who I’m looking after, using the wording that a family is using. Some need absolute clarity: “dead”, “dying”, “died”. When I rang another funeral director at the time my dad passed, I said that my dad had died. It came out quite naturally. I think I prefer it.

PM: Maybe there are some things that you have to pick up over time. I guess your approach must have changed since your days with Marjorie.

BP: I have become more comfortable with people who are in extreme grief. When I was a bit younger, someone dropping to their knees and wailing inconsolably was probably more uncomfortable. We have a contract with the police where I get called to sudden deaths. Not every funeral director has that. We get called to suicides, road traffic accidents, people who have had a heart attack in their living room.

PM: You’re on call overnight?

BP: Yeah. My other half, Dom – he’s a fireman – does nights with me, which is nice.

PM: Even so. Most people spend a lifetime trying to avoid disasters. It’s a curious thought, being on call for a death.

BP: Suicide is particularly challenging. A few years ago, when someone had done that and their wife or husband was there with them, it would have been a case of “Come on, let’s get you to the kitchen, let’s get you away from this.” Even now, the police do the same. But I say, “No! Wait. If this takes 10 minutes to get her to the point where she is comfortable to come away, it takes 10 minutes. If it takes four hours, that’s how long it takes.” If I come in and quickly whip them away, which is what we are supposed to do, it doesn’t allow any time for them to understand what’s happened. Experience has taught me just to be really, really patient, to give it time and hold space.

PM: What does “hold space” mean?

BP: Just being with them in that moment, not necessarily talking. Making them feel safe and secure. If they want to scream and shout, if they want to cry – whatever they want to do. You’ve got to be strong. There’s no point in me being upset; it’s not my loved one. I sit back and focus on caring for the person who is with me.

PM: You must get call-outs where people have been lying for some time.

BP: If the police are stood outside, you know you’re in trouble. It’s like nothing you’ve ever smelled or seen in your life. I mean, sometimes you can taste it, and you can smell it in your underwear and you can smell it in your hair and you have to have three baths to get it out. But it just doesn’t bother me.

PM: Is your profession well paid?

BP: If you were to add up the hours I work, I would say it’s not. A qualified funeral director comes in at around £21,000 and goes up depending on years of experience.

Becky is wearing a white cotton Boys T-shirt by MARGARET HOWELL and an ivory wool deep-rib V-neck vest by MHL BY MARGARET HOWELL. The gold hoop earrings are by GOOSSENS. In the opening image, she’s in a brown cashmere jumper by UNIQLO and a gold Trace Chain necklace by TILLY SVEAAS.

PM: Do you ever witness family fights?

BP: Oh yes. Rarely fisticuffs, but we have to mediate a lot more than we used to. Let’s face it, we don’t all get on perfectly with everyone in our family. A death can heighten those emotions. Add alcohol to the situation, after the wake… People used to have quite a bit of money put aside to pay for a funeral, but now, with people having been in nursing homes for five years and all the money gone, lack of finance is putting a lot of pressure on families.

PM: That is so sad. Would it help if people were better prepared for death?

BP: I’m super pro-conversations and super pro-instructions. It doesn’t have to be anything detailed, but a conversation with loved ones about what they would want if they become ill or unable to speak is invaluable. A lot of people find those conversations really frightening, because it means accepting that they are going to die.

PM: Of course. Where to start?

BP: Well, it needs to happen, because there is a generation of people in their 60s, 70s who want a conversation about death, and their children are going, “No, no, Mum, I don’t want to think about it.”

PM: What can be the result of that discussion never having taken place?

BP: People worry that they’re making the wrong decisions. And that anxiety and guilt can be a distraction from processing the death. But if someone has a set of instructions, it means everything. The family can focus on feeling and grieving and remembering – being in that loss. I think that encourages a healthier grief. It’s not as agitated or drawn-out. When you worry for the rest of your life whether you did the right thing for your mum or dad, the grief never leaves you.

PM: What are the different schools of thought about funerals?

BP: I’ve done lots of research over the years about how different funerals affect the way people grieve. In Holland, for example, one company, Yarden, does what’s called a funeral centre, where everything happens in one place. Many Dutch people have their coffins made into a bookshelf, kept in their living rooms, and when they die, they chuck the books out, ready for use! In Asian, Sikh and Hindu funerals, they physically prepare the deceased as part of the ceremony. I love that moment when they are all together, chattering about the loved one. We are horribly archaic in the way we deal with death in this country by comparison.

PM: We Brits are more conservative?

BP: We get comfort from old traditions, but those aren’t the best way of doing a funeral. People think, Oh, but we have to go to the church. Why? Why not have it in the local pub; why not have it at a community centre? In a field or a barn? People don’t realise that you can have a ceremony – with the body – anywhere you like, give or take. There are no licences required.

PM: It takes a lot of confidence to fly in the face of tradition, particularly when you’re at your most vulnerable.

BP: Absolutely. But we’ve done some phenomenal funerals.

PM: Such as?

BP: The one with the chap in his local snooker hall. We put the coffin on the snooker table. We had a good sing-song, and the pub band played. We had his favourite food: sausage and chips. Everyone bought a dram of whisky and popped it on his coffin as they left. And afterwards they were like, “We never knew we could have done anything like that! How did you know you could do that?” It was an authentic celebration of his life. Then we had one lady who loved picnics, so we cleared all the chairs out of the crematorium hall, put down picnic blankets, and had a picnic and chatted. It was just a space to be reminded of her and some of her favourite things.

PM: Why don’t more people do that?

BP: People are afraid to celebrate; they think it looks disrespectful. But if it’s done right, it is amazing.

PM: And that’s all possible in two weeks?

BP: During the height of coronavirus we were having a nine-, 10-week wait, but we couldn’t plan anything special anyway. But something super-duper special – realistically, between two and three weeks. I’m always having to call in favours, though!

PM: What do you advise people not to do?

BP: Not to put pressure on themselves! People go, “I’ve got to read the eulogy,” “I want to carry the coffin,” and that pressure can create such anxiety that if they don’t do it, then it’s, “Oh, I’ve let Mum down.” I say to them, “Don’t decide, wait till you get there, because until that minute you never know how you are going to feel.”

PM: Do you often have to take over?

BP: Yes. I take services too. I’m a celebrant.

PM: What word did you use? Celebrant?

BP: Celebrant or officiant – but I will lead the service.

PM: How did that start?

BP: I used to watch services, and I would hear something a celebrant said and think, “Oh, that’s good, I’m going to write that down.” And all of a sudden, I realised, I’ve got a service here. I did a couple, just some simple ones, and I loved it.

PM: Is it common for you to have known the person whose service you are leading?

BP: Yes, especially now I’m training as an end-of-life doula. I’m someone who a family can contact to help them coordinate death, to help them plan for it. Not medically; that’s not my role. It takes about 15 people to support a family to create a good death.

PM: What is a good death?

BP: One where symptoms are controlled by a medical team – either a community team or a structured nursing team – so that the end is peaceful, calm and pain-free. One where everyone the person wants around them is there, and when the moment comes, it’s full of love.

PM: You said the support team amounts to 15 people. Who should they be?

BP: Friends, family, neighbours, colleagues – a whole host of people who can be coordinated to help the family through the death. That might be walking the dog, changing the bedding; it might be preparing meals, getting the kids ready for school on certain days, practical activities.

PM: As everyday life becomes devolved from the person.

BP: Also, emotional support for the person who is dying. Helping them write letters, create videos, record their voice so the family has a record; anything they might want. Some of the questions we might ask are, What smells do you like in the room? Who do you want around you?

PM: Who do you not want around you?

BP: Well, yes! Also, prompting discussions with the medical teams: at what point do you step in to prolong life? And at what point do you say “Enough is enough”?

PM: How do people know you provide this service in addition to your funeral director role?

BP: It’s not part of the business I work for. Nothing gets charged for it.

PM: You do all this pro bono?

BP: Yeah, it’s a beautiful thing to do. I wouldn’t do it full time; it would be a bit much. At the moment, I have two families I am looking after, and it takes a day and a half a week, on top of my working week. They are at the very early stages – a year, 18 months, two years away from anything changing. So, we are slowly thinking and planning and talking. It’s fine.

PM: I’d heard of doulas for the beginning of life, but never an end-of-life doula.

BP: There is a charity called Living Well Dying Well, founded to create more conversation about death and dying. Its first patron was a woman called Kathryn Mannix, a doctor in palliative medicine. You’ve got to read her book With the End in Mind! I read it as a set text as part of my diploma in funeral arranging. There’s a detailed set of examples from families she guided through dying. I thought, I want to do a bit more of that!

PM: Are there trends in the trade? Do you see certain kinds of coffins come and go?

BP: Oh yeah, definitely! Electric hearses are very popular at the moment; people are looking to be more sustainable. And memorial jewellery, where ashes are used to make rings and things. My favourite coffin is 100 per cent wool. They are called Swaledale coffins and are soft but sturdy. They sort of hold their shape, but they’re soft to the touch. All-glitter ones are quite fun, too. You get seagrass, wicker, willow, water hyacinth, bamboo…

PM: People worry about the wicker ones, don’t they? That they are going to look a bit crafty?

BP: Like a gift basket? Well, they do, and because they are a natural product, they do make a bit of a squeaking noise, you know.

“If children are unprepared for death, they are fearful of it for their whole life.”

PM: When my husband and I had to make a will, we were completely unprepared for the question “Interment or cremation?” Do people normally have an answer?

BP: Nearly always cremation, yes. Most of our churchyards are filling up, and most of the cemeteries are old and not looked after, so people don’t want to be left there alone. But there’s something new around the corner: aquamation.

PM: What is that?

BP: It’s a water-based cremation. You are basically put in a big tank and kind of separated.

PM: So you are dissolved? Like in Breaking Bad?

BP: Kind of! But not by acid; it’s all natural chemicals. There is a liquid waste product – nothing nasty, no DNA, just liquid waste. We are like 77 per cent water! The rest is a sort of white powder that they dry out, like soap powder, which you are given. If you want to make it into fireworks – it makes about four rockets; it’s all over a bit quick, if I’m honest – if you want to send it up into space, if you want to put it into a little plot in a graveyard with a stone on, you can do those things, just like ash.

PM: Is this what Archbishop Desmond Tutu requested?

BP: Yes! And aquamation is in Europe; it’s coming. Most water boards in England can’t decide what to do with this waste product: is it still a person? Well, no, it’s not, it’s just a waste product like anything else. But in 2020 Yorkshire Water granted consent for water cremations. I think it’s brilliant. It is nice to have an option not to be burned or buried. To have a third option.

PM: You don’t want to be buried?

BP: No! It’s a waste of space. Put me somewhere useful or compost me.

PM: Well, it sounds like you will effectively be composted by this aquamation. Become garden feed. I shouldn’t be flippant…

BP: It’s not flippant, it’s just thinking, What are we? We are animals, aren’t we? When we die, I believe that that is it. I have to be honest: I really do. And what’s left – our shell – I don’t really see the point of making too much of a fuss of what you do with it.

PM: You’re not painting a picture of the traditional mortician or undertaker here, Becky.

BP: The fat controller with a top hat and a big belly, marching through a ceremony with a cane? No. That’s not what my team and I are like at all.

PM: What do you wear instead?

BP: I wear a long frock coat which tapers in the middle – a bit more feminine, I suppose. And sometimes just a long black coat, with a nice cravat and a pin, and a pinstriped skirt. There are a couple of specialist tailors – the one we use is called Lyn Oakes – who come and fit you. It’s a big purchase. I do have a top hat – a short one – and some nice shiny patent brogues. Flat, because the burial sites are full of rabbit holes and mud. My team and I also have a blue tweed set, if families want colour or less formality.

PM: What are the most common misconceptions about what you do?

BP: That we reuse the coffins.

PM: What?

BP: You’d be surprised. People think that at the crematorium funeral directors take them out, cremate the body and reuse the coffins. And some think we cremate more than one person in the crematorium. All these silly little myths. None of that is true.

PM: Does ambition have any place in funeral directing? What are your plans for the future?

BP: I think there is a real opportunity to do something differently and well. I have a plan to create somewhere with a more holistic approach – somewhere with a venue for a service, in a beautiful, natural setting with some water or something, and then an area where you can have a reception afterwards. One place, no cortèges or limousines. And maybe I would look at aquamation on site. A new way of looking at funerals.

PM: Sign me up! Do you have your own affairs in order?

BP: Yeah! Although it changes almost monthly. I can’t possibly decide on my music; it changes all the time. It would be in a barn, with loads of chickens running around. And a bit more like a party, with live music and really good food. I would love an outdoor funeral, if the British weather holds up.