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Matters of Life & Death – Tracey Warren

funeral director Tracey Warren

Tracey Warren was just 18 years old and on a youth training scheme when she conducted her first funeral. She’s now been a funeral director for 22 years. In 2011 she was among the first cohort to graduate with a degree in funeral services from Bath University. Together with Colin Roberts, she is behind Stoodley & Son, a friendly independent funeral home in Crewkerne, Somerset.

I’m a people person and wanted to be in a caring profession. I did health and social care at school and, when I was 17, had a few days’ work experience at an undertakers. On my first day I saw the chapel of rest, went out with them to a funeral and was intrigued by the level of how they looked after people. From there, I said: “Mum, Dad… I want to be a funeral director.” They were okay about it... once the shock wore off. I began on a two years YTS apprenticeship on £55 a week.

No one in the family was in the funeral profession, although later, doing the family tree, I discovered my great, great, great-grandfather had been a carpenter, wheelwright and funeral director in Penselwood, Somerset, and had also made the pews in the local church. The funeral profession is unique, you’ll never find another like it – and the people who work in it are unique, too.

We were never allowed to attend funerals as children. I never went to my grandfather’s or neighbour’s funerals when they died. The first one I went to was when I was 15 and a lady at my church had died. I knew the lady and remember everything about it. I went on my own.

The first funeral I arranged, it poured with rain – I got absolutely soaked – and I recall the family didn't pay the funeral account in full as they had very little money.

I was 18 and looking back, it’s such a big thing at such a young age. I was at the coalface, dealing with life and death. It wasn’t just little old ladies who had died peacefully in their sleep, but people who’d died through suicide, babies. It was challenging and still is, to be honest.

There are times you need a damn good cry and let the emotions out. All of us have to do it at some time. There’s a bravado to being a funeral director, a stiff upper lip, but what we do is not easy.

If people say they’ve hardened to the job, then they should reconsider whether the profession is right for them. We should have a professional detachment but ultimately we are all human and all have emotions.

It’s important I have downtime. Gardening is a big thing for me. I’m always in my garden in the summer and I’ve just begun crafting jewellery.

Funeral directors Tracey Warren and Colin Roberts

We’re a close team here – it’s just me and Colin. Are we supportive of each other, Colin? He’s nodding! There’s a unique thing here. When families come in they meet both of us, so we all have that shared experience. If we have issues, then Colin and I are both sounding boards to each other – and there’s always cake on a Friday.

Today was the anniversary of my best friend’s funeral. Facebook has a feature called On This Day and this morning’s popped up with her funeral. She had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, but even though a death is expected, when it happens, it still comes as a shock.

I had to keep my professional head on, but certain circumstances are upsetting. If you do show emotion, it shows you’re human.

Who is the funeral for? Six months ago, I’d have given you a different answer, but the direct funeral has come on the scene.

Historically, the funeral is a traditional ritual to help with the grieving process, to say our farewells and celebrate a life well lived, with a focus on the person who has died. It’s to support and comfort the bereaved and it’s a type of thanksgiving for everything they meant to us.

But there’s been a surge in direct funerals, perhaps through a change in attitude to death. So who is the funeral for? No longer we can say the people left behind. People are saying to them, I don’t want a funeral when I die, I don't want to put the family through it. Direct funerals are becoming more and more popular. At a recent one we conducted for a man in his 50s, even his parents didn’t attend.

You have to ask, is that helping the grieving process, with no starting focal point for grief? I wonder if we’re being moved away from being a ritualistic society, to a place where death is medicalised. It’s as though death is being pushed under the carpet.

Studying funerals at university was amazing. There were a couple of standout points for me.

I did a dissertation on the funeral of Thomas Hardy and had permission to go through all the funeral artefacts, including the invitations and order of service. He had three funerals; he was cremated at Woking, his ashes were buried at Westminster Abbey and his heart removed and buried in Stinsford, Dorset. He had a memorial in Dorchester, too.

I also studied how we have evolved our funeral culture, from medieval times to the medicalised deaths of today. It was three-year course and I loved every minute of it.

My job’s so rewarding. Earlier today, a family popped in. He’s a woodturner and made the most beautiful carved wooden plate as a thank you for the funeral we conducted. It’s utterly beautiful. Although there’s a back story I can’t share, my last two Funeral Guide reviews from families were stunning. As long as a bereaved family says it was a job well done, that’s the feedback that’s most important.

The life philosophy I’ve learned is that we all say life’s too short, but none of us bother to act on it. It’s important you enjoy life and do things that make you happy and for time spent outside work to be meaningful.

My own funeral’s all written out. I’m being buried and I’ve chosen two spots. I’d wanted a woodland burial, but recently, I managed to buy a new grave plot next to my grandparents. I don’t know if I’ll use it for myself or the rest of the family. I’m torn and can’t decide.

The music for my funeral is all chosen and I’m having a poem, too, Bad Sir Brian Botany, by AA Milne. It’s my favourite poem and it’s all about good versus bad.

I’m the rocker in the office. My funeral playlist features Closer to the Heart, by Rush and Skid Row’s Breaking Down. I’m going out to Angel, by Jimi Hendrix.

I want a glitter coffin. The one I’ve chosen is stunning and if you’re a magpie like I am it’s the most beautiful coffin you’ll see. I like to be pioneering.

My famous last words would be: “She tried her hardest.” I always hope I do my best for families, the way they want to be looked after – just as I wanted to be treated when I’m bereaved.

  • Stoodley & Son provides traditional, bespoke and direct funeral services, with Tracey and Colin looking after bereaved families in Crewkerne, Somerset, and the surrounding areas.
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