Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors has been serving Horsham since 1855. The company now has further branches across West Sussex – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint – and has established a reputation of being willing to share expertise and offer advice to those who need it. The company recently organised a funeral which demonstrates this clearly, arranging a personalised farewell for a local family…
It began with Funeral Arranger, Alex, taking a phone call. The Chaplain at our local hospice, St Catherine’s in Crawley, had a question: would it be possible for someone to be buried in the local cemetery in a shroud rather than a coffin?
Shrouds are increasingly common in 2020, and in our area this is mostly due to the popularity of natural burial grounds. For these burials, there are restrictions on what style of coffin you can have, as it must be fully biodegradable, and shrouds are also accepted. However, for longer-established cemeteries, coffins are still chosen by most people.
‘I knew that the cemetery has a specific section for Muslim burials,’ Alex tells us, ‘and that shrouds are accepted for this purpose, but I thought that it would be wise to double-check, as the family in question weren’t requesting a Muslim burial.’
Having discussed the idea with the cemetery, Alex informed Lisa Rainier, Chaplain at St Catherine’s Hospice, that the cemetery would be willing to accept a non-Muslim shroud burial. ‘Lisa seemed pleased that I had got back to her so quickly, and was happy to be able to pass the information along to the family she was working with,’ Alex says.
It was some time later that the idea was mentioned again. ‘I received a phone call from the family informing me that their relative had died, and that she had asked to be buried in a shroud,’ Alex continues. ‘We were then able to have a broader discussion about how they’d like the funeral to take place.’
The family told Alex that they were keen to have a service at the graveside – indoor services weren’t currently permitted due to social distancing restrictions. With this in mind, plus the fact that it is summer, Alex suggested that a shroud might present a few challenges. ‘It would need to be positioned on trestles next to the grave whilst the service took place,’ Alex points out. ‘I was concerned that this might be uncomfortable for some people, and that it was a little risky given the possible weather conditions. The last thing we ever want to do is cause anyone any further distress.’
Alex contemplated the options and came up with a creative potential solution. ‘We have a great relationship with our suppliers,’ he says, ‘one of whom is Somerset Willow. I know that they are incredibly adaptable and willingly listen to individual requests, so I got in touch with them next.’
Somerset Willow is, like Freeman Brothers, a family-run business. The willow that they use to make their products is grown on their own land, and where colours are requested, natural dyes are used. Everything is then woven by hand, with many pieces made to custom orders. Alex discussed a bespoke product with the company, and it was agreed that they would make something which looked similar to a large tray. It would be fitted with some of the standard coffin fixings, such as willow handles to match the rest of the piece, plus a lining, mattress and pillow. As with a coffin, it would also have a small name plate, attached to the foot end.
When the willow tray arrived, Alex knew it had been the right decision. ‘Somerset Willow had done a fantastic job,’ Alex says. ‘They had used a wooden base to ensure that there would be additional stability for the item to be placed at the graveside for the service, and then lowered steadily into the grave. It also looked as though it would provide a comfortable and dignified rest for our customer.’
At the customer’s request, the Deceased person was wrapped in a shroud, before being laid in the willow tray. On the day of the funeral, another supplier joined in the chain. ‘The family had also requested for there to be flowers on top of the shroud, and I knew straight away who the ideal florist would be,’ Alex continues.
He immediately recommended Felicity of Lady Lissy Floristry, who has done brilliant work for us in the past. The family spoke with Felicity to communicate their request, and Felicity kindly agreed that Community Co-Ordinator, Becky, could watch her work and take photos.
‘Whilst Felicity worked, she told me that the family had described the lady who had died as loving the idea of a meadow or hedgerow feel,’ Becky says. ‘Felicity had also been given a lot of creative freedom – the family hadn’t given her a specific colour palette to work with. Whilst she is always happy to do this, it can be tricky in some seasons, so she was delighted to have this opportunity, and to get to allow her imagination to do the work.’
Felicity arrived with an abundance of flowers and began by using a selection of foliage to build a gentle frame for her work. She then added a variety of blooms layer by layer – a huge range were expertly placed within the foliage, from a gorgeous grass variant to roses, sweet peas, amaranthus, and blackberries. It was a warm August morning and as Felicity worked, you could smell the aroma of the flowers building beautifully. Felicity had sensibly chosen not to use anything water-based, due to the tribute being created directly on top of the shroud.
‘I wasn’t the only one following Felicity’s work,’ Becky continues. ‘Whilst we were together, various colleagues floated in and out, keen to see how things were progressing. It had seemed an unusual request, so they were all intrigued as to how it would look, and the display drew many comments on how lovely it looked.’
Once Felicity had finished, the willow tray was barely visible, and nor was the shroud. A passer-by may not have guessed that this was someone who had been prepared for a funeral!
The lady’s final journey to the cemetery took place in a hearsette rather than a hearse. ‘I had discussed this with the family,’ Alex says. ‘Whilst I knew that they were planning to arrange for flowers to be placed on top of the shroud, we weren’t sure how this would look, and whether they wanted the attention that this may draw in a traditional hearse. Again, this was about softening the funeral and allowing the lady who had died to proceed with the utmost dignity.’
‘It really was an honour to be part of something so different,’ Alex sums up. ‘I’ve arranged and conducted many funerals, including assisting with some other unique requests in the past. Every funeral is bespoke, and this is a clear demonstration of that, as well as our expertise and our reputation within the area – without our relationship with the Hospice being what it is, they may not have thought to ask the question, or had the confidence to know that our advice is given freely and without obligation.’
Most importantly for the team, the family had the funeral that they hoped for. ‘It also highlights the importance of discussing your funeral wishes,’ Alex finishes. ‘In this case, the family had been open with each other, knew exactly what was wanted, and then had the ability to work with us in order to ensure that it went ahead. This was a much smoother organisational process for them.’