Community Co-Ordinator, Becky Hughes
Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was established in Horsham, West Sussex in 1855. The company now has offices across the county – also in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint – and employs a team of 30 people from the local area. The business remains independent and family-run, currently owned and operated by the fifth generation of the Freeman family to work within the business. With many years having passed since the creation of what is now Horsham’s longest-serving business, the current circumstances present ongoing challenges – Community Co-Ordinator Becky Hughes explains further…
As we entered 2020, we had great expectations for the year in business: in addition to continuing to serve the community in our usual fashion, we were looking forward to celebrating our 165th anniversary with a year-long community campaign. Whilst plans were being put in place, none of us banked on a virus which we’d never heard of throwing the international community into a pandemic before the end of the first quarter.
Our history as a business spans far further back than the memories of anyone alive today, and it can be strange to think about! Although I quote our year of establishment and length of service frequently, the figures tend to trip off my tongue without a lot of consideration for what they truly mean. Whilst computers, smartphones, and many other trappings of modern technology are embraced by most of us today, these things were utterly inconceivable for Bede Freeman, who set up the company. Not only this, but he also wouldn’t have anticipated many other things we take for granted, such as cars, electrical domestic appliances, and affordable overseas travel for the masses.
One thing we now have in common with Bede and his successors, which we had not anticipated that we might, is the crisis within which we find ourselves globally and, as funeral directors, our position as key workers. Bede himself witnessed the Industrial Revolution, and the early stages of World War One (he died in 1915), with his sons taking over the business, seeing Freeman Brothers through to the end of the War, plus the Spanish Flu pandemic which followed.
Although we aren’t able to benefit from our predecessors’ advice at this time, we are a long-established business with many years of experience among the team, and benefit from technologies and processes which have evolved over time. Here in the present day, we were happily celebrating the first anniversary of our Hurstpierpoint office’s opening at the beginning of March before we were introduced to a new concept: social distancing.
Things began to change very quickly during the second and third weeks of March, with updates sometimes being circulated hourly (again: things which wouldn’t have been possible in Bede’s day, unless we had no shortage of willing people with quick legs!) via both phone and email. My colleagues and I were glued to the live news updates – just as for everyone else, our personal lives are impacted as much as our professional ones, and we too were wondering what would happen to our planned holidays and events; whether we would still be able to visit friends, family and other loved ones; how we’d go about our daily lives such as food shopping.
Funeral arranging is a multi-agency process, and never was that more evident than when we began receiving updates from individual crematoria (we most regularly use the two nearest to us, but are also frequently at a number of others), hospitals, the Coroner’s office, industry bodies such as the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), our local council and various others.
Our own initial updates to service provision were based largely in the common sense school of thought: official advice regarding funerals specifically wasn’t issued early in the process, and so it came to us to interpret the government advice to the general public, in order to ensure the safety of our customers, plus our ability to continue the business sensibly. We quickly realised that the situation presented an opportunity to protect both members of the public and our own team (and, by association, their friends and family members, as all of us leave work and go to our individual homes of an evening!).
Social distancing protocols were observed by ourselves at our offices and when conducting funerals, and this was a strange thing to get used to. We are all used to greeting customers and other contacts with a handshake, and being in close proximity to strangers when transporting them to services via limousine, so there was a lot of unexpected change within a short period of time.
As there is still a lot which isn’t known about COVID-19 and data is still being gathered, how to work with those who are suspected to have died due to the virus was also unclear. Again, common sense decisions were made: staff always act with the utmost respect and dignity for those who have died, and take great care when handling Deceased persons, and these policies have become more important than ever. Staff were able to make use of personal protective equipment (PPE), some of which (namely, gloves) they already use as standard procedure. Our offices are consistently maintained to a high standard, but there was an awareness that it was particularly important to follow hygiene procedures.
The situation has been particularly keenly felt by me in my role at the company: as Community Co-Ordinator, I’m responsible for and involved with a number of events publicly, and spring is usually a busy time for these. I found it sad to hear of event after event – particularly fundraising ones for charities – being postponed or cancelled, and my diary suddenly had a lot of unexpected holes in it!
I also had two weeks of annual leave which had been arranged for a long time – I was given the option to amend this if I wanted, as I had been due to go abroad and it was becoming increasingly apparent in mid-March that even home-based activities would be curtailed. I found it difficult to leave my colleagues at what was becoming a busy time, but decided to enjoy my time off: it was a fun challenge to see what I could still do at home, and as the weather improved, I got to grips with picnics in the garden and outdoor home workouts, when my gym was forced to close.
My return to work was the most unusual I’ve experienced in my working life: I had no adventurous stories to share with my colleagues, and they had little personal news to update me on! Professionally, things had changed significantly: whilst I was away, government guidance had dictated that funerals would only be attended by a maximum of ten people, and we were now only able to supply stock coffins, rather than offering the usual variety of a range of options including willow and cardboard.
The team are doing a fantastic job as always, and I’m proud to be part of the group of key workers who are continuing to assist the general public through the pandemic. We are all learning a lot in our personal and professional lives, and it’ll be interesting to see what the new version of normality looks like once we arrive at that destination.