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Matters of Life and Death – Simon Dyer

Funeral director Simon Dyer of funeral directors FA Albin & Sons

Simon Dyer is behind one of the UK’s most historic traditional funeral homes, which he runs with his brother Jon. Located by the river Thames in Bermondsey, FA Albin & Sons has been looking after people in South London since the 1790s. Here, Simon talks about following in the family tradition and the life lessons he’s learned along the way.

My brother and I grew up above the shop. We’re probably among the last generation in the funeral profession to do that. We lived upstairs in our head office branch with our grandad, George, on the other side of the landing. We hold bereavement support training workshops for people outside the funeral profession, now, in what was our family’s living room.

There’s a big family portrait on the wall of our main premises in Bermondsey. Grandad was an undertaker and ran Albins with our great-uncle, Fred Albin. Our late dad, Barry Albin-Dyer, took over the business in the 1980s.

The oil painting shows all five of us, with many things in the background that show the company’s history. There’s a Victorian gold-brimmed top hat, a horse-drawn hearse and the gates leading into our memorial garden, where hundreds of local families attend the remembrance ceremony we hold for loved ones every Christmas.

Funerals were a big part of our childhood. For other people at school, it was “How could you?”, but for us, it was completely normal. Dad taught us a lot from an early age and we’d attend funerals and removals - going with him to collect people when they died. I still remember my first removal. What I especially remember is how the bereaved family was with me. They were so accepting, even though I was so young.

I think I always knew this is what I’d grow up to do. There were no doors closed to us, so we were drawn into it from an early age. We were always involved, working Saturdays, school holidays and even in-between lessons when needed. Dad gave Jon and me the opportunity to come in when we were ready, though. For Jon, that was as soon as he left school as he knew it was what he wanted and was very keen to get started, while I did a business degree at college and had a bit of time off before starting work.

Our dad was an inspiration. He was a showman and was what the company was all about. For him, looking after people and giving them exactly what they wanted was important. At one funeral, he arranged for the cortege to call via the local newsagent and pick up the morning paper, just like the person on the way to their funeral had done every day.

This week, we had a funeral procession stop off at the bookies for one last flutter and a betting slip was put on the coffin. Putting people first is still our priority. Dad died two years ago and while we can’t be exactly like him, we have learned from him and developed our own style. I think he’d be proud.

My brother and I are a good team. We are really close and although we have quite different personalities, we have the same way at looking at things. We can perform any task, but Jon’s main focus is on looking after the funerals and vehicles, while I manage a lot of the administration and funeral arrangements. Our roles have evolved naturally, so we don’t clash.

There’s a lot of sadness in the job. But my way of dealing with it is to help people. That’s what we are there to do – it’s already hard enough for families. You don’t want to make it any harder for them, so that’s what I focus on.

Children’s funerals, though, are something you don’t forget. I remember one beautiful little girl who was into princesses, who we dressed in a Belle [from Disney’s Beauty & The Beast] outfit. I remember how her parents were; withholding their grief so that they could arrange her funeral and then letting their emotions out in the chapel of rest.

You never know what to expect when someone’s grieving. They might be very together, hysterical or even angry. The first meeting with a bereaved family can be very difficult, but we are on the front line and understand that people react in different ways.

Sometimes people want to take their loved ones home. We have ten chapels of rest at Bermondsey, but quite often people prefer to have a few final days with the person who has died at home after we have prepared them. We often help them set up a room like a chapel of rest and make it look lovely for them.

The worst thing you can say to a bereaved person is ‘no’. You’ve always got to find a way, or if it’s not 100 per cent possible, a good alternative.

A funeral’s mostly for the people you leave behind. People may say, “Put me in a box and throw me in the Thames,” and yes, that’s what you want, but is that really what your son or daughter will do? Everyone’s different and every funeral’s different and that’s what’s lovely about this job. People will ask, “Is this strange…?” But if it’s right for you, it’s special.

I never really accepted my dad was dying and never talked about his funeral. He was the strongest man – invincible. I think he knew he was dying. He had everything planned and written out – including three funeral services. We had a chuckle at that.

His ceremonies included a boat trip with his coffin up and down the Thames with all his family with him, a funeral Mass celebrated by Archbishop Peter Smith at St George’s Cathedral in Southwark and, three days later, a funeral Mass at his local church, Holy Trinity. We also held a service for him here, in our dedicated Catholic chapel of rest and everyone who worked for him had a drop of brandy.

I do think about my own funeral. In this job, you can see how vulnerable life is and learn to make the most of things. I’ve always thought though, that there’s no way I’m being buried. While I can see how people view cremation as a ‘cleaner’ way to go, my plan’s always been go in a vault in a wall. Not buried and not burned.

My dad had a saying: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice.” If people say about me when I die, “He was a good man,” I’ll be happy with that.

Simon and Jon’s dad, Barry Albin-Dyer OBE wrote three volumes of memoirs – Bury My Heart in Bermondsey, Strong Shoulders, and Don’t Drop the Coffin, which inspired a television documentary he featured in.

He was appointed by the Queen as a deputy lieutenant of Greater London in 2013 and the streets of Bermondsey were thronged with well-wishers who applauded as his funeral cortege made its way to Holy Trinity Church on June 20, 2015. His funeral was relayed live on big screen to crowds gathered outside and short films from the day have been posted on YouTube. Simon and Jon’s wonderful eulogies, which tell more of his life story, can be found here.

  • FA Albin & Sons is based at Arthur Stanley House in Bermondsey and has funeral homes located across South East London.
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