Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in Horsham, West Sussex, in 1855. The company continues to operate via the original premises on North Parade, as well as now having further offices in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint. As with many other businesses, Freeman Brothers has seen a variety of world events which have impacted trade, but nothing quite like the coronavirus pandemic which has hit during 2020. With plans for a variety of circumstances put on hold, there was one event which was able to continue. Community Co-Ordinator, Becky, shares the story…
It seems incredibly strange to reflect on this time last year – which really isn’t very long ago – and to think that we held an in-person Community Remembrance Service for the first time. It was an intimate event, and one which we hoped would grow. We learned a lot thanks to putting it together last year, and as I led meetings in the early part of 2020, we were keen to move forward with plans for this year. We even had a date in mind early on, in order to plan ahead, and had settled on our preferred venue, when things changed very quickly during March.
As the summer progressed, we had hoped that the UK would be in a position to hold small events this winter. Funerals, of course, have continued in a variety of in-person formats throughout lockdowns, but as time progressed and weddings were permitted and then forbidden again, it became clear that funeral services would be the strict exception to the rule.
Safety of ourselves and those we work with is paramount to us, so we began to consider alternatives. Initially, this was to have a backup plan, but it soon became the best way to ensure that we could run a COVID-secure event.
The greatest hurdles for us have been inexperience of ourselves and our customers. Nobody at Freeman Brothers had ever organised a wholly-online event (although we had attended many in the form of Zoom meetings, or Houseparty drinks and quizzes!), and nor were we confident that the appetite would be present among our customers.
On reflection, we noticed that we’d had a huge increase in requests for funeral services to be webcast or downloaded, and we decided to take the hint and go for it. Having sponsored Horsham Film Festival – the awards ceremony for which took place a month prior to our first lockdown – we had a contact who would be able to provide broadcast services, and this made the idea of planning it feel much more manageable.
The bigger task was digitising our mailing list: the nature of funerals prior to 2020 had always been that it’s a highly personalised service, which relies upon a strong relationship between Funeral Arranger and customer being built. As such, we rarely contacted customers via email, mostly liaising face to face or via phone. A large part of our customer base had also struggled to adopt digital technologies, and preferred a different method of contact. Again, 2020 has been about adaptation, and both we and our customers have had to make changes.
For customers we didn’t have an email address for, we took the time to write, and posted a batch of letters out advertising our Service. Others received emails, and we ran a campaign via our social media channels as well as our print advertising.
We had decided to stick with our original date – it was chosen early with care, after all. We wanted to keep the event as separate as possible from Christmas, in order to appeal to those who do not celebrate as well as those who do. Christmas can also be a sensitive time of year and is best avoided for other reasons, however December can be so challenging due to the weather conditions in the UK, so it was our preference. We had also chosen our date last year to line up with the first National Grief Awareness Week, and were hoping to align again this year (which we have managed!).
Our planning of dates took place without knowledge of what level of openness or lockdown the UK may be in by the time the date arrived, so we chose to go with a weeknight as we had with our in-person event. Much as we’d like to believe that we are highly popular, there is little point in a small independent brand going up against the seasonal televisual behemoths of Saturday night! Or, should the UK have not been in lockdown, any kind of Christmas parties or shopping.
Ultimately, our date is what could be the last night of England’s current lockdown. Equally, with the Service being broadcast on YouTube, it is accessible worldwide, and I do quite like the idea that my friends internationally can now attend one of my events without having to leave their own home!
Whilst I’ll keep the full contents of the Service as a fun surprise, I’ll gladly share this: we’ve chosen our included items with care. As previously, there’s an act of remembrance, which those who had requested a participant pack will have time to join in with whilst watching. There are poetry readings from myself and my colleagues, carefully selected to reflect the diversity of our audience, as well as an appropriate tone. And there’s a message from our nominated charity, Jigsaw (South East), to whom you may donate should you wish.
Our donation site can also be used to leave a tribute to a loved one – this is free of charge, and we are grateful to our partners, MuchLoved, for putting together this website for us.
When I began my Events Management degree in 2006, there were murmurings of online events taking over the world, and I’ve found it interesting that it didn’t actually happen until this year. To me, this shows that although we’ve had the technology for some time, human beings do prefer to gather in person when possible, so it’s unsurprising that many people have found this year so hard. Those of us who organise events are particularly sad, as we do it because we love it, and a huge part of the experience is to meet with our delegates and see them enjoying the fruits of our labours.
As I can’t share this experience with those who hopefully log on to watch, I’m really hoping that we receive lots of feedback – we’re using the hashtag #FBRemembrance across Twitter and Instagram, and I’ll obviously gladly hear from anyone via email or phone after the event. My other hope is that those who watch live, or in the early stages following it being upload it, take the straightforward step of forwarding the link to others they know will appreciate it. This is one of my favourite elements of the digital experience, that it is so easy to pass something on to a friend or family member, which lets them know that although you are apart, you are still thinking of them.
My colleagues and I have enjoyed pushing ourselves and putting this event together. At this point, we have no idea how the world will be running by the time we’d like to repeat the experience in 2021, but we are now confident that whether we are able to invite you to join us in person, or we ask you to log on again, we will be able to offer something which is better than ever.