Behind the Scenes at the Veterans Bereavement Support Service 0

A funeral arranged with the help of the VBSS

At Beyond, we always strive to highlight the important work that funeral directors carry out to provide families with the best care possible. Yet bereavement support does not always begin and end at the funeral home. A multitude of organisations, charities and community-led initiatives work in tandem with local funeral directors to lend a helping hand to families in their greatest time of need.

For the month of November, and with the spirit of Armistice Day in the air, we decided to speak with Paul Burrows, a founding member and volunteer at Veterans Bereavement Support Service (VBSS). Established in 2014, this unique service helps bereaved families whose loved ones serve, or have served, in the armed forces.

Hi Paul. VBSS is run entirely by volunteers. Where did it all begin?

The service came into being because we noticed that many families were feeling let down by the system. When it comes to bereavement care and support, many struggled to pay for the funerals of their loved ones, often due to high costs and a lack of financial assistance. We created Veterans Bereavement Support as an online resource, with the added benefit of real-time help and support as and when needed.

So, how does it all work?

Initially, we started referring bereaved families to independent funeral directors, as they are expert in offering a personal approach. We would then help them with the organisation of the ceremonial aspects of the funeral and, where possible, we contributed towards costs.

However, in the past 18 months our services have changed significantly. Whilst we do refer families to independents – as opposed to corporate funeral directors – we are always contending with restricted funds. Due in part to the rising cost of funerals, we are no longer able to give financial help to families. But, on the plus side, we are fortunate that many funeral directors still work with us and offer discounts to veterans.

Restructuring has meant that our services are now used by more families. As well as providing bereavement care and support, we offer listening services, advice on access to funding for funerals, the loan of coffin drapes and, if requested, we present the Veterans Memorial Pin to widows or the next of kin when a veteran passes away. Above all, we are here for veterans and their families at their time of need.

How do veterans’ families typically make contact?

The families contact us directly asking for assistance – usually in the early days of their loss – and we make suggestions on how we can best support them.  There are some funeral directors who also contact us when they are handling a veteran’s funeral, so we are always happy to help by offering our advice and support.

Today marks the centenary of Armistice Day, with commemorative events taking place across the country. Do veterans’ funerals tend to differ in many ways?

We don’t encourage people to view veteran funerals as different in too many ways; what we are doing is marking the passing of someone who has served our country in times of war and peace. There are some people who do not want any ceremonial aspects for the funeral at all, and this must be respected. Others appreciate symbolic gestures, like the ensign of their service draped over the coffin. In cases like these, we work to ensure that drapes are the correct size and are happy to loan these out to families that require them.

There are other instances in which a standard bearer, padre and representation from a specific regiment is required, and so we can work with families towards this end, too. Each veterans’ funeral is unique and special according to the wishes of the family, and we always endeavour to make the family the central point of anything we are involved with.

We tend to advise against mass attendances at funerals and often discourage social media posting, as these can draw unwanted attention and detract from the overall dignity of the funeral service.

In this special year, there have been lots of low-key funerals, but one in particular stands out in my mind: that of a Normandy veteran, who died in Poole. We worked with the funeral director, the family and the regiment. It was a very moving experience for everyone and I, as a Padre, helped with the church service and conducted the committal at the crematorium. Present as the service were standards, fellow veterans who knew him, and a military guard of honour; the whole process was simple, dignified and respectful.

The VBSS aren’t unfamiliar with going the extra mile to help families. Can you tell us any more about the lengths you’ve gone to in the past?

Yes, certainly. One veteran, who lived in London, had served in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and then had moved onto Australia where she continued to serve in the Royal Australian Air Force. When she returned to the UK, she served in the police for 25 years.

We arranged for the RAF to send a representative, and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police also sent a personal message thanking her for the service given to the people of London. Even the Australian High Commissioner sent a wreath and a letter that was read at the funeral and given to the family!

Our main priority is providing bereavement care and support to families, and we have helped families across the country from Lands End to John O’Groats, Northern Ireland, Wales and most UK counties. Very recently, in fact, we were involved in a funeral in Wiltshire for a veteran of the Royal Hussars. We met with the family at the time of passing and helped them get the best priced funeral, and then helped them through the paperwork and funding. We then went on to arrange the whole funeral for them according to their wishes, and it was a fitting and dignified funeral.

Do you work with any other organisations or charities at all?

No, we are totally independent and have no links with the RBL or SSAFA or, indeed, any ex-service organisations. It’s worth pointing out that neither do we get any funding from the government.

We prefer to be independent and non-political so that we may provide the best possible service to those who require our help in their time of need.

To find out more about the VBSS, you can visit their website at veteransbereavementsupport.com

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Meet the Maker: Cremation Glass Jewellery 0

Glassmaker Kenny Scott of Ash Glass Design.

Pendant with flecks and swirls in the glass made from the ashes of someone who has died

What do you see when you look at this pendant? To the untrained eye, it might look like … a pendant. But to those in the know, it’s something unusual, and completely unique: those flecks and swirls in the glass are made from the ashes of someone who has died.

In fact, the necklace is just one item in a range of mourning jewellery and sculpture created by glassmaker Kenny Scott and his team at Ash Glass Design. Based in the picturesque village of Clovenfords in the Scottish Borders, Kenny and co. craft bespoke cremation glass jewellery for families who want a subtle way to carry their loved one’s ashes with them.

So, how does one become a cremation glassmaker, exactly, and how is cremation glass actually made? To find out more about this relatively new answer to the question of what to do with ashes, we had a chat with Kenny …

 

How did Ash Glass Design get started?

Kenny Scott and his team at Ash Glass DesignKenny began his career at the tender age of 16, leaving school to take on a five-year apprenticeship in making glass from scratch. 20 years later, he was creating glasswork for museums and clients when he received an unusual request:

“One of my friends who’s a funeral director approached me and asked if I would make a memorial pendant for someone using ashes”, Kenny told Beyond. While at first Kenny wasn’t sure (he describes it as “a wee bit of a Marmite moment”) the family was so pleased with the result that he immediately realised that he wanted to do it again.

“After I made the pendant and met the family, it was the best feeling I’ve ever had when making something for someone”, Kenny explained. “They were so happy, and it’s such a precious thing that you’re making for them, that I thought, ‘Oh, I really like doing this.’

“Basically, that was it: I put a wee range together, and from there it’s kind of grown. I love doing it.”

“Nobody would know what it was other than them, and I think that’s the beauty of it.”

Why do people like cremation jewellery?

CreAsh Glass Design's cremation glass mourning ringmation jewellery isn’t for everyone ­– but while some find the concept morbid, others like the idea of keeping a loved one close in a subtle way. “I speak to all the customers, and I think for them the nicest thing is the fact that they can have their loved one with them all the time, and it’s not in your face. It doesn’t have a big sign saying what it is – it’s just a lovely piece of jewellery”, Kenny said.

“Nobody would know what it was other than them, and I think that’s the beauty of it. Everybody says that they get so much comfort out of having it.”

In Ash Glass Design’s range, rings are the most popular option: “Somebody said to me, it’s like they’re still holding my hand.

“We do lots for weddings as well, my goodness. For somebody who has maybe lost a parent, it’s like [their loved one] can be there on their wedding day. It’s a lovely way to have them with you.”

“There’s always something you want to try and create differently and try and adapt.”

How is cremation glass jewellery made?

Making cremation jewelleryThe process of making cremation glass jewellery is long and somewhat delicate, with great care taken to make sure the right ashes (“labelled, bagged, boxed, bagged again”, Kenny reports) are used.

At Ash Glass Design, everything is made in-house. After a discussion with the family about the design, Kenny melts their required colour of glass to make a base. He then carefully adds the ashes before sealing it over with clear glass to make a perfect finished surface.

After some time spent in the kiln – it takes a day and a half to gradually cool the hot glass down – the glass is polished down with diamond tools and set into the gold or silver using a traditional technique. Any ashes left over are returned to the family along with the finished piece.

“You have to know the procedures for cooling glass down, how to heat it up, how compatible it is with other materials, so it’s quite a wee science on its own,” Kenny said, adding that “there’s always something you want to try and create differently and try and adapt. You’re always making new designs as well, to stretch the boundaries a bit.”

“I still get phone calls three or four months down the road from some of my customers saying how happy they are, and what it means to them”

Do you take requests?

Because Ash Glass Design is a small company (Kenny, his wife Emma and “amazing” goldsmith Joanna) the team are able to take requests to make each piece of glass unique: “If somebody wants a bespoke colour in their jewellery, we never charge any extra … We do what we can to help folk get what they want. If [a customer] wants something to be adapted somehow, then we look into it for them”, Kenny explained.

“Sometimes it’s not as feasible as they might think initially, but we can talk them through it, and find the best option for them.”

Customers appreciate this personal service: “I still get phone calls three or four months down the road from some of my customers saying how happy they are, and what it means to them. Even a couple of years down the road, we still get them phoning back, asking how we are. It’s lovely.”


Want to find out more about Ash Glass Design? Check out their website, www.ashglassdesign.co.uk, give the team a ring on 01896 850447, or contact Kenny at [email protected]


About mourning jewellery …

A Victorian mourning ring with hair sealed into the gold.
A Victorian mourning ring with hair sealed into the gold. Image by Charles J Sharp, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mourning jewellery dates back as far as the 1600s, when stern memento mori-themed rings (‘remember that you must die’) were gradually overtaken by more personal tokens of grief. Examples from the British Museum demonstrate how gruff messages like “learn to dye” were replaced by kinder tributes, such as “not lost but gone before” and “not dead but sleepeth”.

At its peak in the Victorian era, mourning jewellery was worn as part of a strict dress code for the bereaved. Mourning rings were joined by broaches and lockets, and were often made with jet (a precious stone that, being black, was thought to be mourning period-appropriate). Many contained a lock of the hair from the person who had died, or a miniature portrait.

Popularity eventually declined as life expectancy increased – by World War One, mourning jewellery was out of vogue. But the desire shared by bereaved families for physical mementos of their loved ones never really went away.

Now, the rise in cremation – 70% of people in the UK choose it over burial – and increasing openness about death are leading to a rise in interest, with companies like Ash Glass Design offering a more contemporary take.

Meet Basil, the UK’s First Funeral Therapy Dog 0

Basil the Beagle, a funeral therapy dog

What makes someone a good fit for bereavement care? Kindness, attentiveness, a lovely glossy coat …

Basil, who puts in his hours in at Clive Pugh Funeral Directors in Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury, might tell you it’s all three – if he could talk. Basil is, after all, a dog.

In fact, the gentle and unassuming beagle is quite possibly the UK’s first ever funeral therapy dog, working with Clive and Rosalinda Pugh to offer comfort and support to bereaved families.

“People love him because it feels as though they’re coming into a home, as opposed to funeral premises.” Rosalinda told Beyond when we caught up with her recently.

“We hope it’s something that gives a bit of relief to people, even for a very short space of time, when they come to us to arrange the funeral of their loved one.”

Basil the Beagle, a funeral therapy dogOffering paws for thought …

Basil joined the family business in 2016, at the tender age of six. Clive and Rosalinda’s daughter had taken care of Basil since he was a puppy, but she was finding it difficult to give Basil the long walks he loves after having their first grandchild. Clive and Rosalinda were happy to step in.

“With Clive and I both working full time in the business, I said now that Basil is going to live with us, we will have to give him a role.” Rosalinda explained.

“I knew that therapy dogs went into nursing homes and hospitals and I thought that Basil would be perfect in a similar role with us because he’s just such an adorable beagle – so calm and loving.”

Once Rosalinda and Clive started giving families the opportunity to spend time with Basil, they found that he was a perfect fit:

“He started coming to work with us every day, and we let people decide as to whether they wanted him there or not. And it’s just gone from there.”

“We have found that the majority of families are really pleased to have him around, to the extent that we had a funeral recently where the family wanted him to lead the coffin into church. They were thrilled that he was able to be there. I’ve been amazed at the response.”

“We often get letters and cards from families asking us to say hello to Basil or thank him for being there.”

Giving families a hound

Picture supplied by Richard Dawson/Bav Media

What’s the secret to Basil’s success? Recent studies have shown that support animals really do make a difference to the way we feel, lowering blood pressure and releasing mood-boosting hormones.

One study by Goldsmiths University indicated that dogs in particular are compelled to comfort people they think are in distress, and will even approach and nuzzle strangers who are crying in an effort to soothe them.

In a funeral home, this instinct to help can make a real difference to the bereaved. “Basil provides families with unconditional love and support, as well as a subtle distraction from grief,” Rosalinda told Beyond.

“If you’ve ever had an awkward family reunion, you might know that a dog, even then, can brighten up the mood and give people something a little bit light-hearted to talk about. That effect is immediately helpful when you’re arranging a funeral, because people are anxious when they come to see a funeral director. They’re not sure what to expect, and I think Basil just takes a little bit of that stress away.”

“Sometimes people are nervous of going into our Chapel of Rest, but if they have Basil with them, it seems to alleviate that feeling.”

Every dog has his day

It’s not just bereaved families who love Basil – he’s now something of a celebrity. So far, Basil has been featured in a number of national and international newspapers, including The Times, The Express, The Independent, Metro News and even Paris Match. He’s also made an appearance on ITV’s This Morning, where Clive, Rosalinda and Basil were interviewed by Davina McCall and Ore Oduba of Strictly fame.

So, has Basil let all the fame go to his head? Rosalinda says not: “We’re not letting any diva behaviour become evident, if we can help it. Definitely not. But beagles are such loving, affectionate dogs; I think that you can’t go wrong, really.”

“We’ve seen an incredible response. It’s been quite amazing. You have to wonder why somebody didn’t do it a long time ago.”

Want to find out more about Clive Pugh funeral directors, home to the lovely Basil? Check out their profile here on Beyond.