Death school

This is what you hear: that death is big business. The funeral trade is worth more than £800 million a year in Great Britain; 620,000 funerals take place every year and the average cost of each now stands at over £1,200. It’s always been possible to make money from the dead – remember Scrooge’s old associates bickering over his bedclothes as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come showed the miser his ghastly funeral? – and so it should come as no surprise that multinational funeral firms should be devouring local, family businesses, opening crematoria and turning a tidy profit.

It’s the service, after all, that everybody needs. You may reach a great age without ever owning a car or a dishwasher, double-glazing salesmen may regard you as a hopeless case and estate agents may wash their hands of you. But there will come a time for a purchase that you – or your surviving relations – can’t escape. It is what Thomas Lynch, writer and undertaker, has called the "death expectancy": a mortality rate of 100 per cent. We all die, and we all need to do something about it.

But what should we do? Often it can seem like it’s just those numbers that matter. But Lynch thinks the numbers are only a distraction from realities we don’t care to face. He runs his family’s funeral firm in Milford, Michigan, and is the author of a splendid book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, a thoughtful, clear-eyed set of meditations on his line of work. He is also the author of two volumes of poetry, the latest of which, Still Life in Milford, has just been published. "The living have an obligation to deal with the dead," he says. "To bear witness, if you like. And I don’t simply mean in a professional sense. It’s easier, of course, to talk about money. We believe we can control our feelings by laughing at undertakers – whistling past the graveyard – and paying attention to the numbers, but that’s not what it’s about. We have to face the dull, unadorned notion that if you love, you grieve."  He dates this obsession from the publication of Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death in 1963 ("it might as well be the British way of death, too," he says), a scathing attack on what she saw as sharp practice in the funeral trade, undertakers only too ready to take advantage of those made, presumably, helpless by their grief.

Concern with numbers, with abuses, is transatlantic. Last year a Channel 4 documentary, Last Rights (part of the Undercover Britain series) carried on this tradition, with a young journalist, Ben Anderson, venturing incognito into a firm owned by American funeral giant Service Corporation International (now there’s a name worthy of Evelyn Waugh’s deathly satire The Loved One) and revealing horrors – coffins, with bodies inside them, used as rubbish bins; the deceased hauled around like so many sacks of cement; ruthless price increases – that probably surprised no one. They’re all con artists, the thinking goes. They prey on the bereaved; who needs a ride in a fancy car when you can’t feel the wind in your hair? Who needs to be embalmed? You won’t care what you look like. Surely all that went out with the ancient Egyptians.

There is a little statue of Anubis, jackal-headed Egyptian god of the dead, sitting on a shelf of the Salisbury College of Funeral Sciences. The classroom over which he presides is a Portakabin round the back of one of the three premises belonging to Will Case & Partners, a long-established independent firm of funeral directors. Ironically, it was a firm in Salisbury that was the target of Channel 4’s expose; here, however, things are very different. This is the sort of place where the realities of death – not simply the practicalities, but the truths of loss and love – can be confronted and, perhaps, salved. Sheila Dicks is principal of the college, which runs three courses for the training of funeral directors: a basic health and hygiene course, a seven-month diploma in funeral directing, and an embalming course that takes nearly two years to complete.

In the notes she has written for the diploma, there is a section headed "Creating the right image". "It is very important to realise what it is that people expect of a funeral director," it says. "They may expect us to be: dull, obsequious, humourless, pale and sallow. You can probably add more to this list."

No doubt. But Sheila Dicks is none of these things. She is a twinkling lady in her middle years, with a neat cap of golden hair, a taste for brightly patterned trousers and an endearing warmth. Head office (if what is still clearly a family home may be described as such) is a modest red-brick building tucked behind Salisbury station. It has been a busy few weeks: there will be three funerals to conduct the following Monday, and the phone rings constantly, inciting Sheila’s beloved sheltie dogs to a frenzy of barking. But she’s happy to let us observe all that goes on. "We’re not ashamed of anything we do here," she says. "Everything is out in the open. It’s the only way to get people to understand what we do."

The funeral industry is notoriously unregulated: there is nothing to stop you screwing a brass plate to your front door and setting yourself up in the trade. The bodies which presumably regulate the industry, such as the National Association of Funeral Directors, the British Institute of Funeral Directors, the Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors, the Funeral Standards Council and the British Institute of Embalmers, have no actual legal control of their members, and there is no obligation for any funeral director to join such associations. Following the screening of Last Rights and the uproar that followed (employees of the firm were let go; the Office of Fair Trading launched an inquiry into the "at need" funeral service), SCI in fact withdrew from the NAFD, a move that surprised the association’s spokesman, Dominic Maguire, a Glasgow funeral director of 28 years’ standing. True to his trade a master of tact and discretion, he did not wish to express an opinion of the American giant, but stated unequivocally that "if you wish to operate as a funeral director, you should have certain qualifications, and certainly someone in the firm should have a degree of professional training".

It’s a position backed up by John Payne, a solicitor and administrative manager for the BIFD (who provide the tutors for the diploma awarded by the NAFD). He would like to introduce a register of funeral directors, but admits that it would not be easy to institute: it would be difficult to deal with "grandfathering provisions" – those who had been practising the trade for years without qualifications. "If I were a funeral director who’d gone through exams, and others were given qualifications without having done that, I might feel what I had was devalued," he says. But he is committed to providing not only initial training for funeral directors, but also to beginning to provide courses for "continuing professional development".

The Salisbury College has been providing training for funeral directors for just over 15 years now, turning out around 55 qualified funeral directors each year who have been schooled in the skills and principles of this family firm whose workers are still bound to it by ties of blood. Sheila was to all intents and purposes adopted by Mary Case (still the senior partner of the firm at 82) when her own parents died; Alan Puxley, who manages the firm and is chief tutor to the student embalmers, married Sheila’s god-daughter. Alan, upon his arrival, is forthright about what the college hopes to achieve. "We’d like to see regulation across the board," he says. "Funeral directors should have to be qualified." Sheila, certainly, has done her bit towards achieving that goal: she is the author of Modern Embalming: Theory and Practice, the textbook now used and endorsed by the British Institute of Embalmers. Students come from across Europe and across the world to attend: the week after I leave, a student is arriving from Trinidad. Her boss was trained at the college: now he is sending her back to train too.

In his black suit, black braces, black tie and tasteful cufflinks, Alan Puxley is more my idea of what a funeral director might look like, although none of Sheila’s gloomy adjectives apply. He’s a big man, over six feet, and with a frame that looks as if he enjoys life to the full. His demeanour is perhaps more serious than Sheila’s. One might even call him sober, despite flashes of a wicked sense of humour ("Of course you can smoke," he says to John, the photographer. "Good for business."): it is abundantly clear how much he cares about what he does, how much he has thought about it, how very clear-headed he is about it. "Of course we make a profit," he says in a soft West Country accent. "We couldn’t operate otherwise. Everything costs money." Their cheapest funeral costs about Pounds 800.

Case & Partners usually handles around 120 funerals each year, not so many that they can’t give due care and attention to each one. "You have to be able to give the family time," Puxley says. "If they call at nine in the evening and they want to come and see the body, fine. If they want me to come out and talk to them and make arrangements on a Sunday, fine. You can’t be hurrying people out of the chapel of rest because you’ve got another family waiting in the queue." You have to be understanding, too, of everyone’s needs: recently the firm undertook a Muslim funeral, whose protocols are entirely different from what they usually deal with it. But nothing – allowing the family to wash and dress the body, procuring the special cloth (which must not be touched by non-Muslim hands) to be used as a shroud, fazed them. "It’s their funeral," Alan said to me over and over again. "You must always be aware of what it is the family really want: not what you think you ought to provide for them." If that means a Chelsea blue coffin with a white Ford Cortina painted down the side, so be it.

Whatever other courses are running at the college, there are always embalming students around. "Like the poor," Sheila said, "they’re always with us." And so at 10 o’clock on a grey Thursday morning, we drove the short distance to the small industrial estate where Will Case & Partners has its embalming theatre and chapel of rest to meet Mark Elliott, student embalmer; and the late Mr Stephens, who had died at the fine age of 96 and had come into the care of the firm.

We got a little lost on the estate. We passed Spruce Pools; Howden’s Joinery; Stock Electronics Ltd. Everything becomes incongruous in the face of death. But at last we pulled up outside, with Alan behind us in his Volvo (licence plate Al 1 PUX: even funeral directors, clearly, have their vanities). It hadn’t been easy to find a premises. "If you’re a funeral director everybody wants you," he said wryly. "Just not next door."

Certainly true of most people: not true of Mark, who strolled up the path crunching on a toffee apple. Mark, who is from Guernsey (where there’s "not much call for embalming", he told us sadly), is 18, and might seem younger than his years were he not 6ft 7in tall. Softly spoken with a gentle manner, he has been studying with the college for just over a year; before that he had begun training at another college whose practices were rather different than at Case & Partners: the experience so distressed him – he wouldn’t go into detail – that he needed counselling. Is your family in the trade? I asked him. How did you choose this profession? We were drinking instant coffee in a kitchen-cum-office entered through the garage, where a gleaming hearse was parked and a selection of plain coffins in different sizes lined the walls. Mark looked slightly dreamy. "I’ve always wanted to do this," he said. "Ever since I was about four. I just have." This despite an initial fear of the dead that one would have thought precluded a career in the funeral trade, never mind as an embalmer. "I couldn’t touch them," he said with a slight shudder at the memory. "Sheila got me over it. She’s very no nonsense. She just took me in the chapel, basically, and said, we’ll stay in here all night if we have to. And then I was fine." He shrugged and smiled.

It’s hard not to be, what – shocked? Appalled? The image of being taken, not quite willingly, into a small room with a dead body isn’t an easy one. For death, removed from home to hospital, made sanitary, forestalled endlessly, euphemised, has become a stranger to most of us, and those who deal with the dead can seem strange and sinister beings. Later, I asked Sarah Burgess, 21, training as an embalmer and about to embark upon the Diploma in Funeral Directing, what her friends had thought when she became committed to a career in the trade after a stint on work experience in her teens. Sarah, who rides a big Suzuki bike and comes to work in leathers, rolled her eyes. "You know. Morbid. Weirdo. All that. But it’s like a vocation," she added seriously. "I guess it’s what it’s like to want to become a priest." It was an analogy that would often spring to mind as I watched Alan, Sheila and their students perform their offices.

Mortui vivos docent, says a handwritten sign pinned up on the wall of embalming theatre. The dead teach the living. The theatre is small and white, not so very much bigger than the gurney on which the body to be embalmed is lying. There is a big double sink; bins for the disposal of hazardous waste; a shelf of cosmetic products, Tesco shampoo and Leichner face powder; a tank for embalming fluid. There is a clock on the wall which, like the clock in the office, is stopped. Mark and Alan have changed into surgical green gowns, Wellington boots, thick rubberised aprons, rubber gloves. We stand at the door of the theatre; Mark and Alan lift the sheet that covers the body of Mr Stephens.

The ancient Egyptians packed bodies in natron to desiccate them before burial; the modern form of preservation involves replacing blood with embalming fluid, a solution of formaldehyde or formalin.

As for the detail of it – "You have to balance the practical with the romantic," Alan says. "People don’t want a blow-by-blow account." "Pork pie syndrome", he calls it. "Everybody likes pork pies; they don’t want to know how they’re made," he smiles. As he speaks he is drawing needle and thread through jaw and nostril to close the mouth, and I can see what he means. But watching the entire procedure, which takes over two hours – the tests for death (a touch on the eyeball; listening for a heartbeat), the gentle massage that breaks down rigor mortis, the disinfection of the body, the careful incisions made for drain and trocar, the subtle cosmetic masking of a hasty scar made in hospital when a pacemaker was removed – I am struck by the transformation that is effected.

When Alan and Mark lifted Mr Stephens’s shroud, what lay on the gurney was a body, a corpse. Something – some thing – out of which the life had unequivocally gone, the vital element that makes us who we are: spark, soul, spirit, call it what you will. It was not upsetting to me, but then I had not known Mr Stephens in life; I was not his daughter, granddaughter, wife. Two hours later what lay there was Mr Stephens. Not seeming as if he might leap up at any moment; looking, true enough, as if he were somewhere beyond sleep; but looking ready for his relatives to take their last leave of him and be able to hold with them a memory of him that would assure them that he was – as it might say on his headstone – at rest.

The importance of this, its distance from anything approaching "barbaric ritual", came home to me as I stood the following day in the small and dignified chapel of rest that Case & Partners have at Amesbury, just outside Salisbury (there is one on the estate, too, opposite the embalming theatre). Gerry Tomlinson had died young, at 60, and after a long series of illnesses that had tried not only him but his family, too. In the stillness of the chapel his daughter told me how much it meant to her to see him now, looking at peace: how it enabled her to remember how he had been before his illness had so changed him. Her words, her grief, her love for him, would be a broom to sweep "barbaric ritual" out of anyone’s mind. So, too, was the sight of Alan Puxley, kneeling on the grass of Amesbury cemetery, digging a grave for the small casket that would hold Mr Tomlinson’s ashes, the sunlight brilliant on his white shirt, the trees green and living all around.

Who would want to be a funeral director? These images make it possible to find an answer to that question. None of the three young embalming students I met had any family connection to the trade: each saw it as a caring profession, providing support for people at the very worst times of their lives. Choosing students isn’t always easy, however. "You have to be a bit careful," Sheila told me. "Sometimes people want to go into it because they have their own grief to deal with, a family member who has died and they haven’t come to terms with it… and they hope that working in this business will help them get over it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. It’s fine if they go away, sort themselves out a bit, and still want to work. But you do have to watch out for that."

Those who work in the trade must, of course, become somewhat inured to what they do: sometimes too much so, as the hidden camera of Last Rights revealed. But not all, and not entirely. "It’s very important to have people to talk to about it," Sarah Burgess told me. "I suppose you could say that we act as counsellors for each other." I watched Vicki Nation, 28, embalm a man who had died of a rare

infection: he had therefore had a postmortem, and the work was harder – more gory – than what she called a "straight" embalming. But unpicking the stitches that ran from the base of his chin to the top of his groin, she was untroubled – while admitting that this wasn’t always the case. "It depends. Some people strike you more than others. I had a woman once who was about 40 stone," she said. "and that got to me." Vicki is herself a big woman. "I could empathise with her, somehow." Vicki seemed glad to be able to describe to me what she was doing as she worked: in a few days she was set to take her practical embalming exam, having already passed a five-hour theory exam some months previously.

About 70 students throughout the country pass the British Institute of Embalmers exam each year; a further 125 received a Diploma in Funeral Directing from the National Association of Funeral Directors.

Vicki is a vivacious, striking woman with a silver stud in her tongue. "There aren’t enough women in the trade," she says. Currently working at a funeral home in Bournemouth, she hopes eventually to set up a business of her own. Her husband, Tony, is supportive of her career choice: but won’t venture further than the office, and the day I meet her is, in fact, the first time he has come inside the building at all.

But long days spent around the premises of Will Case & Partners prompt this realisation: that funerals are not wholly about the dead. Marking the passing of the dead is what separates us from other animals; it is a ritual we perform that we may be reminded of what they meant to us, of how much we love our lives. Whether or not we believe in an afterlife seems almost immaterial in this context. Funerals are for the living, as much as for those who mourn. We cannot escape our connection to those who have died: we cannot avert our eyes. Thomas Lynch reminds me how strong the temptation to do so is: Jessica Mitford, he reminds me, in two books about death and two volumes of autobiography, never once mentioned her own dead children. "The bodies of the newly dead are not debris or remnant," he has written, "nor are they entirely icon or essence. They are, rather, changelings, incubates, hatchlings of a new reality that bear our names and dates, our image and likenesses, as surely in the eyes and ears of our children and grandchildren as did word of our birth in the ears of our parents and their parents. It is wise to treat such new things tenderly, carefully, with honour."

Some names have been changed.