Beyond Featured Funeral Director: A Natural Undertaking 0

A Natural Undertaking

It’s featured funeral director time, when we catch up with the best, brightest and most-intriguing industry professionals in our catalogue. This month, we’re talking customisable coffins and sparkler processions with Fran Glover from A Natural Undertaking – and asking why ‘funeral director’ isn’t always the right name for what they do.


Brought to life in 2014, A Natural Undertaking was created by friends Carrie and Fran as a new kind of funeral service – one that champions choice and more hands-on family involvement – serving the Birmingham area. Four years in, they’ve just bought their second car (a ‘dinky’ electric hearse, the first white one bought in the country) and are about to open new premises. We reached out to Fran to discover the secret to their success.

Carrie and Fran from A Natural Undertaking

How would you sum up your approach at A Natural Undertaking?

For us, it’s about being open to all ideas, and helping people to have as much choice as they want and need.

So, rather than saying, ‘This is what we offer, and this is what we do,’ we say ‘What is it that you would like to happen here, what do you need to do?’ And that starts a conversation. And no question is a silly question – or no request is a silly request.

The greatest satisfaction we get is knowing that we’re actually helping people to do something that they want to do at a really difficult time of their life.

Why do you think family participation matters?

Not everyone wants to do it (and they don’t have to), but some people feel that they want to be more involved with the funeral. Families who do it often find it really cathartic.

People decorating their loved one's coffins

For example, we helped one gentleman decorate his mother’s coffin. He wanted to put pictures of all the places that she’d been to – all around the world – on it. But he needed some help, so we said he could come in and we’d help him out. Then, at the end, he actually said, ‘I can’t believe how much fun I’ve had decorating my mother’s coffin!’ We felt that that was because the entire time, he’d been telling us stories about her, talking about her, and remembering things – it’s a lovely thing to be able to do.

When somebody dies, you’re powerless to do anything about it. But afterwards, what you can do is get involved and express your feelings, your knowledge of that person, in a creative way. And it can be very helpful.

 A Natural Undertaking's white converted Nissan Leaf eco-hearse

Why ‘A Natural Undertaking’ and not ‘Natural Funeral Directors’?

It’s a deliberate choice: the way we feel is that ‘funeral directing’ kind of implies that we’ll be telling people what to do, where to go, where to stand, how to be. What we would prefer to do is be there as a support in the background, and help people do what they need to do. So ‘undertaking’ feels like a better description of how we are.

What’s the most memorable funeral you’ve helped to arrange at A Natural Undertaking?

A funeral at the natural burial grounds often used by A Natural UndertakingThey’re all lovely in their own way, but there have been a few in the last 12 months that have been kind of stand out. One lady, who was a well-known yoga teacher in the area, had quite a large funeral – about 200 people.

We spoke to her and her son before she died (she wanted to make the arrangements so that he didn’t have to worry) and she was very clear: she wanted a cardboard coffin, she wanted people to come and decorate it, she wanted music playing, her friend was going to lead the service … and sparklers were mentioned.

When it came to her funeral, we booked the village hall and we put the coffin there with a craft table – and she wanted us to print ‘om’ stickers as well that people could stick on the coffin – and people came and decorated it and chatted. It ended up almost like a really relaxed party.

Then, the sparkler situation: her son wanted everybody to hold sparklers and form an arch for the coffin A decorated coffin lies in front of a window at a funeral arranged by A Natural Undertakingto come through. We didn’t know how many people would be there, so we brought storm lanterns to make sure that they’d all stay lit while the coffin was carried, and made it work – it was beautiful.

Later, at the natural burial ground, the family and friends wanted to fill in the grave. We were playing music, and suddenly Bob Marley ‘One Love’ started playing and everybody just – without thinking –  just grabbed the hand of the person next to them. It was one of those heart-stopping moments, on the hillside with the sun shining.

Another [memorable funeral] was my mother’s last September, which was again at the natural burial ground. We danced salsa, we read poetry, we sang songs, we performed Shakespeare all around the grave and we toasted her with gin and tonic – did all these things that she would have loved. It was very different, but it was nice to be able to do that because they were the kinds of things she liked and loved to do.

 

You and Carrie are very active in your local community – what’s coming next for you?

A woman decorates a coffin supplied by A Natural UndertakingWe’re founding members of BrumYODO, a local community collective that creates spaces for people to be able to talk more openly about death and dying. Last year, we put on a festival In Birmingham with workshops, debates, shows and art experiences. We had funeral food, a wicker coffin weaving workshop, a multi-faith panel discussion.

The idea was that people could get involved [in a conversation about death], but in a way that’s a bit softer, and less clinical. We’ll be doing it (or something similar) again this year in May.

We’ll watch this space! Thank you, Fran.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity. A Natural Undertaking is an independent funeral service based in Birmingham. To find out more about Carrie and Fran, check out their Beyond profile here. For the latest news on BrumYODO, visit their website at www.brumyodo.org.

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Behind the Scenes at Scattering Ashes 0

The team from Scattering Ashes hold up a mini Viking funeral boat.

With cremations now accounting for an impressive 76% of all funerals in the UK, more and more families are looking for creative – or even spectacular – things to do with their loved one’s ashes.

That’s where Scattering Ashes come in. Founded in 2009 by Richard Martin, this incredibly comprehensive site aims to help its visitors find the perfect way to say goodbye, whether that be a peaceful seaside scattering or going out with a bang in an ambitious firework display.

This month, we caught up with Richard to talk about scattering techniques, Viking funerals – and why you don’t want to leave ashes at Jane Austen’s house.

Hi Richard! Thanks for the interview. How did Scattering Ashes come to be?

Ashes being scattered from a vintage wartime Tiger Moth
Richard and the team can help you scatter ashes from a vintage wartime Tiger Moth plane, among other things.

I worked for the Environment Agency and DEFRA for many years, and it was looking like it might be time to change career. So, I thought, ‘What would I like to do?’

I’d scattered my dad’s ashes years before, and felt that we were left a bit at sea because the funeral directors didn’t have any information. We scattered his ashes at his golf course, and we weren’t made to feel very welcome when we went there –  and we certainly weren’t made to feel welcome when we wanted to go back. It all just felt a bit unsatisfactory.

So, I had the idea that perhaps I could help people by providing information about scattering ashes, because there was nothing out there online. I started blogging and then the business grew from there.

A Viking Longboat urn from Scattering Ashes
The Viking longboat urn from Scattering Ashes actually floats.

What’s your favourite scattering method on the site at the moment?

One thing that seems to have hit a chord with people is the Viking boat.

We do an almost metre-long Viking boat that holds a full set of ashes. You can set it afloat, set it on fire, and it goes up in a blaze of glory. We’ve tested them, and they’re pretty cool, I have to say. When we’ve seen them set sail, they’ve looked amazing! I quite like the fireworks too.



Why do you think people are looking for more exciting things to do with ashes now?

I think society has become more accepting of death. I also think that the old religious practices don’t suit as many people these days – maybe you don’t necessarily want a vicar speaking at your funeral because he never really knew you, and you’re not religious in the first place. And more people are thinking, ‘Well, actually, I don’t want that sort of faux-Victoriana, I want a bit more of a celebratory approach to my life’.

Ashes are scattered directly into someone's face in this scene from The Big Lebowski.
That scene from The Big Lebowski.

You run courses on scattering ashes for funeral directors. Do you have any top tips for a successful scattering?

Mind the wind is my main one.

There’s that scene in The Big Lebowski.

Exactly. Another is to be safe: a chap died last year scattering ashes after he got washed off shore in Cornwall, and the year before that a couple died in Spain doing it, and the year before that a lady fell off a cliff doing it in Ireland. Don’t go to these extreme places, because you’re putting yourself in danger.

A biodegradable water urn shaped like a turtle
This floating turtle urn from Scattering Ashes is completely biodegradable.

The third thing is probably to be aware of the amount of ashes. People tend to think it’s going to be light. In movies, like The Big Lebowski for example, there’s literally a few handfuls. But in reality, there’s something like six pounds of ashes.

So, people often end up scattering for quite a while, then they upend the urn and get this little conical pile of ashes, and it looks odd. Then they realise, ‘Oh god, we’ve got nothing to move it around with,’ and they’re using their feet, and then they go, ‘This is undignified.’

But with a bit of thought, you can make it quite a poignant, memorable ceremony, which is what we try to educate people about.

You keep a (really very comprehensive) record of places that allow scattering – do people often say no?

More and more often, now. When we first started a lot of football clubs were saying yes, and now many say no. Some are trying to cater for it with memorial gardens instead: they realise the demand, but they don’t want it impacting the pitch.

The more people scatter ashes in one place, the more troublesome they find it?

Jane Austen's house in Chawton
Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, where visitors have been asked to stop secretly scattering ashes. Image by Joaotg, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Absolutely. Two particular places come to mind. One is the top of Ben Nevis: a lot of Scots will have their ashes scattered at the top of Ben Nevis. The ecosystem up there is relatively fragile – mosses and lichens. It might look barren, but it’s not.

Ashes are rich in calcium and phosphorus, so when you put a lot of ashes there, you’re changing the ecology of the place. So, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland has asked people to stop scattering at the summit.

They had to put a press release out for Jane Austen’s house because people were sneaking over the wall at night and upending the urns on the weekend. The gardener might come back on Monday morning and find three piles of ashes that had been dumped, and of course, a rose bed can only take so much.

A panoramic view from Ben Nevis, where people are no longer supposed to scatter ashes.
The view from Ben Nevis. Image by Leo Hoogendijk courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

You won Best Bereavement Resource at the Good Funeral Awards in 2015 – what’s your secret?

Honesty, really. I try not to be partisan, and to look at both sides and just use the facts. I don’t have any particular drum to beat about this; I think people should have the right to choose what they do with ashes, as long as it doesn’t impact others. Also, it’s pretty comprehensive: I’ve phoned up and emailed virtually everyone. There must be getting on to 800 posts on there now.

Impressive! And what’s next for Scattering Ashes?

We’re offering training courses for funeral directors and crematoria staff and celebrants, which is new. We’ll also be increasing our trade offer, putting wholesale options on the site. And we now have a sister site here called My Pet’s Ashes, which offers similar services for pet owners, because they’re part of the family too.

If you’d like to find out more about Scattering Ashes, head on over to the site at www.scattering-ashes.co.uk. And if you have your own ash scattering story to tell, we’d love to hear it! Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

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.