The Cotswold Funeral Director: Not in my back yard

Aug 21, 2013
The Cotswold Funeral Director: Not in my back yard

It could be worse; I could have hordes of angry eco-warriors setting up a protest camp and conducting a campaign of civil disobedience like they have at the fracking site in Sussex. You see, for the second time in four years I’m putting myself at the mercy of the planning process. Last time it was enlargement of our existing premises. Leaving out the year-long delay in negotiating flood risk regulations with the Environment Agency, it was all fairly painless (he says through gritted teeth).

But this time it’s a new branch office in another part of our district. We’ve found the perfect location: peaceful, secluded, with enough space for parking and for premises large enough to house everything out of sight. There’s no need to duel with the Environment Agency this time around, but instead we have the feelings of our potential neighbours to consider.

Funeral directors are rather like wind farms (or even nuclear power stations, depending on your point of view) – they’re generally considered necessary, but nobody wants one on their doorstep. The objections raised to my application so far have been fairly reasonable, but the bottom line is the neighbours would rather not have a funeral home there at all. I can understand that.
Having my own situation aside, what really is it about funeral homes that the public don’t like? Is it because they remind people of their own mortality or that of their loved ones - that they’ll have to face the pain of loss at some point in their lives? Or is it simply that people are squeamish about the thought of dead bodies? At one time I lived in the flat above our old funeral home and lying in bed at night I could hear the rhythmic, mechanical throb of the mortuary fridge two floors below me. Even I thought that was a bit creepy!     

But when it’s your own loved one, does it matter to you whether they’ll rest in a building within a row of shops in a High Street; a building in a commercial trading estate; or somewhere in the midst of a quiet, residential area? The same question applies to bereaved visitors: is it better for the chapel of rest to be located within the life-affirming, bustling normality of a shopping street, or is the privacy, but also the potentially intimidating isolation, of a more secluded location the better option?

As much by luck as by judgment, our existing office gives us the best of all worlds. Just a minute’s walk from the town centre; a babbling brook running past our car park and behind us a field with horses. Oh, and the doctors’ surgery right next door. Literally next door. (Accident of history before you ask – we were there first). Add to this the fact we’ve been here for over 70 years, so our residential neighbours don’t even notice us.

How would we go about recreating all of that in a new location? Actually it would be very easy because the site we’re looking at is so perfect for what we need. But of course we have to convince our potential neighbours of that; and why should they take our word for it? After all, we’re the ones wanting to build there.

In an ideal world I’d be able to create a time-warp a few years into the future, to show everyone what I already know – that funeral directors can in fact make very good neighbours. We’re an entirely community-based business, yet it’s embedded in our professional genes to be discreet in everything we do.

I remember a call-out to a private house, contending with an audience of fascinated kids who’d decided watching undertakers at work was infinitely more exciting than playing with a football. They were nice kids too, not belligerent teenagers, and I felt a bit bad shooing them away; but of course I was far more concerned about the bereaved family’s privacy.
Somehow the ideal funeral home needs to be like the cupboard under the stairs: everything there when you need it, but still kept out of sight. But will the planning department regard our intended new site as being like that?     
James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.

He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director”


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