Matters of Life & Death

An interview by Simon Helliar-Moore with FuneralZone

 
After almost becoming a Butlin’s Redcoat as a teenager, singer Simon Helliar-Moore found his true vocation – in a funeral home. This year, after serving more than 20 years in the profession, he opened his own premises, Crescent Funeral Services in Taunton, Somerset. Here, he shares some of the life lessons he’s learned along the way.
 
My first experience of a funeral happened when I was still at school. A friend of mine passed away when we were just 14. I’d been a chorister at Wells Cathedral and sung in choirs all my life. When she died, we sang at her funeral. The funeral directors treated us with such respect and as though we were grownups, not children.
 
I’d always wanted to be a singer. I thought that was the path I would take. I was set to do experience placement as a Butlin’s Redcoat after my GCSEs, but was still only 15 and found out I was too young. So, I approached the funeral directors down the road instead. From there, I was hooked. I completely changed direction and every career plan I’d ever had.
 
I started out as a ‘back room boy’. I left school and began working part time at the local Co-operative funeral home. I did all sorts of jobs, from preparing the coffins and putting the name plates on them, to preparing and dressing people ready for their funeral. It’s the kind of experience that is a good foundation for anyone.
 
I’ve always been aware of the responsibility and privilege. At first, when I didn’t have the practical experience, looking after and dressing the deceased was slightly surreal, yet was something I felt was natural and felt proud to do. Preparing someone for their funeral is something you want to get right. This is a person with a story to be told and we are part of making that happen. The respect we pay the deceased as funeral professionals is very much like a doctor or nurse, in terms of wanting to make a difference in someone’s life.
 
I started out as a chauffeur-bearer when I moved to London. I found a job with a big funeral company, based in the East End and with around 40 homes in North and East London. This was in the days before sat-nav, so I was given an A-Z of London and hoped for the best. They were crazy, but also very happy times, and the people I worked with were fantastic. Because of the range of hands-on experience I’d had in Somerset it also gave me a bit of an advantage in London, where most people had set jobs they focused on.
 
I still remember the first funeral I arranged like it was yesterday. In Somerset, I’d rarely had the opportunity to meet many bereaved families, as I was mostly behind the scenes. My first, in London, was for an elderly lady who didn’t have much family. But I took such pride in it and in how we presented her at the chapel of rest.
 
I’m very happy to have come home. After years as a funeral director running busy funeral homes in London and Bath, it’s been a real high taking the plunge and opening my own funeral home. We opened the doors in January. I grew up here in Taunton, so I’m already well known in the town and we’ve looked after 70 families so far. I’ve been able to put everything I’ve learned and liked about the profession into the business.
 
People have a right to know what they are buying. I believe that’s true when they are arranging a funeral, so we are open about the prices of the services we provide.
When possible, we invite people to come and see us before there’s a need, when you can sit down, have a cup of coffee and smile about what we are talking about. If families are prepared, then talking about the financial arrangements is not so embarrassing or difficult when the time comes. It’s important to be transparent.
 
I deeply empathise with the family at a funeral. I don’t think it would help the families we looked after if we got emotional when they need stability and practical support, but this doesn’t stop us from caring or empathising. A good funeral director has to be a caring person. More than anything, you have to listen, have an open mind and an open heart.
 
People often ask me if I get sad. I think when I feel saddest is when someone loses their soul mate, their life partner, and suddenly, their whole life and foundation has fallen away from them. I think the people you work with in the funeral profession are your greatest support. We are all in it together. I wanted there to be an open door, open book philosophy within our team. We talk. It’s a deeply emotional thing that you’re doing and talking keeps things normal.
 
You may never know the difference you make to people’s lives. About two years after I looked after her mum’s funeral, I had a visit from a lady who told me that from her bereavement, she had found great faith. She said that it was my care during that time that had prompted her to undergo training to become ordained. So now I say to colleagues, just remember the difference you can make, by making someone’s life a little easier.
 
Who is the funeral for? That’s something I’m often asked. It’s a chance for the bereaved to say goodbye and thank that person for being part of your life. The funeral process is about getting the bereaved through that shock of losing someone and preparing for a life without them. It’s about the person they have lost and also, for the bereaved to reflect on how ‘I am what that person made me.’
 
I have fitted tour dates around my work as a funeral director. I mainly sing classical and religious music and also sing at weddings – and funerals, too, when I’m needed. During the funerals I conduct, I do tend to boost the singing from the back of the crematorium chapel!
 
I have big plans for my own send-off. I’ve been thinking about my own funeral since I was 15. With the list I’ve written already, it will probably take a week to properly send me off. And every time I read about something new, I think: “I’ll have that…”
 
Because of my musical background, I’d like a night-time concert with lots of candles lit and lots of flowers, in a church, as I’ve performed so many times in churches and cathedrals. I’d like to stay in the church overnight in the traditional way, before I’m buried the next day. Oh, and preferably it’ll happen around Easter time, when the weather’s not too hot and not too cold.
 
My epitaph will be something I once saw on a gravestone in London and loved. It goes: “The tune has ended and the melody lives on, remember me forever and my memory lives on.”
 
I’ll add the postscript : “Anyone for drinks?” because everyone who knows me knows I love a gin and tonicz
 
Independent family funeral directors Crescent Funeral Services is based at the Old Coach House in Taunton and serves the bereaved in Taunton and the surrounding area