I, Paula, was originally a teacher with a music speciality and Simon (both BA Hons) was a joiner. So on a whim, needing a change of direction, I decided to open a coffin shop. Simon thought I said “coffee” shop and was very enthusiastic. At that time in 1995 it was not possible to buy just a coffin from a funeral director, you had to have the whole funeral package. When he eventually came round to my idea he started out making coffins as pieces of furniture so that our customers could utilise the box until their time came and then they had a free coffin. We were also perceived as making coffins to suit, as made in Ghana, where people get buried in a coffin which denotes their trade or standing in society. This Mercedes Benz (on our kitchen table in the photo) was made for a businessman!
We were on television in 1966 with the Mercedes Benz and a Pirogue, a Ghanaian fishing boat, and were commissioned by a client who thought that we had made them, to make a Red Arrows Jet Aeroplane for someone who had a passion for those pilots. Luckily she wanted a burial, so it was more easily designed with a detachable nose and wings.
Us in Simon’s workshop with said Jet!
We had no intention of becoming funeral directors but after a few months of coffin manufacturing we had a phone call in the middle of one night asking us to pick up someone’s Dad who had died at home……and that was our baptism of fire – described in the OED as “an initiation into battle; a painful new undertaking”. The one thing that was certain though was that we did not want to become ‘undertakers’, we wanted to offer relevance and choice. Our learning curve went up very steeply and very quickly bringing us to where we are today.
One of the many joys of having such a vast experience of funerals is that you can do your own thing when the time gets personal because you know the options.
I decorated this cream painted coffin for my mother. She had used it in her bedroom as a seat with cushions on and for storage as there was very little in her flat. She was a very stylish woman who loved ostentation so I painted gold lilies all around – and she had to have gold handles (something we don’t always use) and gold ribbon amongst the cream lilies and roses. Unfortunately, she died over a bank holiday and we had her Requiem Mass on one day and then had to take her back into cold storage and await her grave to be dug on another, hence the rather droopy appearance of her lovely flowers. The white bear was one she loved, a Christmas present, which when tummy-pressed would sing “Winter Wonderland”! She was lowered into her grave with this singing and dancing bear shocking the gravediggers. She wouldn’t have wanted anything less than a celebration which, luckily, we were able to provide.