On the saddest of days, you’ll still hear people talk of doing a loved one proud – with a funeral tea. Hot water urn on a constant boil, and a decent spread; sandwiches, sausage rolls, tea and sympathy.
“The lemon drizzle cake always goes first – in fact all the cakes go quickly – and then it’s the sausage rolls,” says Kim Clark, who, for the past decade, has been exclusively catering for funerals and providing quintessentially British teas.
Based in Warminster, Wiltshire, Kim and her team provide funeral buffets across the breadth of southern England, from the tip of Cornwall to Brighton. Not simply a catering firm, Tea & Sympathy’s clients are, unusually, exclusively made up of people and families who’ve been bereaved.
Homemade cakes, delicate sandwiches with the crusts cut off and, of course, lashings of tea from a hot water urn that’s always on the go, are Kim’s stock-in-trade. But a sympathetic ear, warm and considerate service are just as much a part of the menu as the funeral food itself.
“We’d had a family funeral and the reception was in a hotel,” she explains.
“The tea and coffee was cold and then it ran out, so lots of the close family didn’t get anything at all to drink. There were no staff either, you just had to help yourself. Not what you need at a funeral. The food was really basic, too, and I thought, for a funeral, it had to be better.”
So Kim donned her pinny and set out to provide a funeral catering service with what she describes as the personal touch. If it’s in season, or her hens are laying, many of the ingredients and sandwich fillings come from her own garden and virtually everything is homemade.
Now, she and her 15-strong team cater up to three funeral teas a week and it’s a service that always includes a personal visit or a phone call to chat about the funeral reception. “I’ll call in, or if they live a long way away, ring, a day or two ahead of the funeral,” says Kim.
“Some people want just to talk about the arrangements, while others want someone there. I never put a time on it – with some people it’s 20 minutes, with others and hour and a half, or, if it’s a family who have lost a young person, it takes longer.
“If they are on their own, I’ll sit with them, while they wait for someone to come. But that’s part of my job, I’m here for what they need. They’re people and they’re important.
“We always ask clients if their loved one had a favourite and try to recreate them,” adds Kim.
“We once had someone whose favourite thing was those bright pink wafers, so we placed a plate of them in the middle of the buffet. No one ate them – the family just wanted them there as a reminder. It’s lovely for people to know the tea really is especially for them.”
While Kim can deliver all sorts of hot and cold funeral tea menus, most popular by far is the traditional English afternoon tea, which she serves up on spotless white linen, with proper napkins, china plates and teacups and a bunch of fresh seasonal flowers in a vase.
“We talk about what they’d like on the menu for the day,” she says. “We pride ourselves on our individually made teas, which are all very traditional and I’m very particular about how it’s all set up.
“If I take on someone new, they always come with me to a funeral tea and stand and observe, to see how it’s done. It does take a while to learn, because it has to be done just right as it’s such an important day. But we are a happy team and that’s important, too.”
Kim provides her funeral teas through six funeral directors, while people also track her down through her website. She says around 80 per cent of her business comes through personal recommendations. She and her staff bring all their own equipment and can set up in a family kitchen or living room, church hall or marquee.
“We bring everything with us, but try and keep the tea urn out of sight, as it’s not very pretty,” she confides.
“The refreshments are an important part of the funeral. We first see or talk to people at a really sad time, but we’re providing a tea for an occasion when people are celebrating someone’s life and they start to relax then. People do want you to come back, to be together and talk about the person who’s gone.”