Dealing with death and bereavement on a daily basis gives funeral directors a unique perspective on the meaning of life. David Barrington looks after families in Liverpool with his wife Claire and team of four staff.
Here, the dad-of-two shares some of the life lessons he’s learned from more than two decades in the profession.
My career in a nutshell: My dad was a carriage master, providing vehicles for funerals, and I grew up above the shop. As a child, I’d play in them – they’d be my Starship Enterprise. I studied business and finance and went into IT support when I left college. Then, when dad was about to retire in 1992, he asked if I’d like to take over the business and I ended up coming back. I qualified as a funeral director in 2000. I wanted to be a one-stop shop for bereaved families – providing everything they’d need.
My first funeral: I was very nervous, mostly panicking about the time. My dad was with me and I was anxious that it went well. Timing’s very important for funerals. You don’t want to be late – or too early, either!
We need to talk about death: I lost my mum when I was 11, so I have an idea how to talk to someone following a traumatic death. She was diagnosed with a brain tumour in the March and died in July. Lots of people were trying to protect me, but in those days the best way to protect a child was keeping them out of it all. These days, that’s not regarded as best practice.
We sponsor bereavement resources for a local school and we have books and literature here for parents, about how to give children difficult news. With children, it’s black and white. Abstract concepts such as ‘we’ve lost your granddad’ just don’t work.
Don’t hold back the tears: Some people won’t cry in front of their kids. It’s because they don’t want to upset the children, but the message that’s given is that if someone dies, don’t cry. But crying can be an important way to teach them how to grieve.
I love what I do: I like people and I like their stories. You do have to keep detached in a way, but there is something wrong if you don’t ever get emotional at the funeral of someone you are looking after. Becoming glassy eyed and feeling for a family is a very natural thing.
The funerals that really move you can surprise you: It’s not necessarily the ones you think it may be; an older lady, say, who has lost her husband after 60 or more years together. A lot of people may think, they had a long life together and lived to a good age, but at the end of the day, she’s never going to be ready to say goodbye.
Sometimes, when someone’s lived what they knew was going to be a short life, families want to say goodbye in a positive way. It’s a funny one though – emotions usually catch you out.
Funerals are not just a business: I think lots of people think funeral directors are here to take money. But they don’t realise the emotional input we put in – it’s a caring profession. Many funeral directors sometimes do, very quietly, help families that need support with the costs, although most people don’t know about that. Funeral directors, when a job is done well, provide an amazing service.
You’re still someone, when you die: One thing that sometimes puzzles me, is how someone stops being Mum or Dad when they die. Some families are quite happy to keep their loved one at home, but for others, they become ‘the body.’
I think that’s due to our attitude to death in society; it’s become a taboo. It’s a bit odd. Years ago, a loved one would be laid out at home, while other cultures are quite open about death. Chinese and Greek families, for instance, have a more natural attitude that death’s part of the life journey and nothing to be scared of.
Not everyone is ready to say goodbye: Lots of people dread the funeral and dread you coming around and making the arrangements. But later they say, it was okay – and that’s the thing we take away from it.
Sometimes a family will give you a hug at the crematorium, or may come in a week later with flowers and chocolates. After the funeral, they can go back to life, although it doesn’t mean they’ve ‘recovered’ from their grief. Some people don’t ever recover from the loss of someone they loved.
Balancing emotions and keeping positive: I think the way you keep a check on that side of things, is that knowing you’re supporting people through a very bad time, when they need it most.
Our aim when we arrange a funeral, is for them to look back afterwards and say what happened was done well and was a good thing, a reflection of the person who has passed away. You go away happy that you’ve done what you could. That’s how you draw a line.
At home and away: My wife Claire, who formerly ran an art gallery, joined the business in 2011. Lots of people say they couldn’t work with their other half, but for us, it works very well. Having Claire in the business is a great support and hopefully the rest of the team feel like family, too.
It would be difficult not to talk about work at home, but our children aged six and 11 keep us very busy. Most family time revolves around their social lives, but we’ve got a small boat in the Lake District we spend time on in the summer.
When I go: Claire and I have just signed our wills, something way overdue that I tell people off for not having done all the time when they are planning their own funeral arrangements! I always thought I wanted a cremation for myself, but recently, I’ve changed my mind and want a woodland burial in a wicker coffin.
The song I’d like played is Good Riddance by Green Day. It’s more poignant than it sounds. It’s about having had the time of your life; you’ve had a good ride, but now it’s done.
Barringtons Independent Funeral Services looks after the bereaved in Merseyside from offices in Liverpool and Formby.