Dim-lit rooms. Dark wood panelling. Top hats. Silent nods. Pensive note-taking in a hushed room. There’s much about funeral directing that seems not only stuck in the past, but unable to detach itself from that most dependable of British traits: the stiff upper lip.
For Full Circle Funerals owner Sarah Jones, this needed to change. After working both as a doctor and later on within the social care setting, she was well accustomed to being in and around people who needed to be listened to. Speaking to those close to her who had planned funerals for relatives, it became clear that associations were on the whole rather negative and experience of the end-to-end process underwhelming to say the least.
Sarah is frank about the industry: “Low expectations are a general problem and are perhaps why it has stagnated for such a long time. Through our social media and workshops we try to impart the thinking that you can create something meaningful and special, and that we can help guide people through the process of doing so.”
“People told me “I chose this and that but I don’t really know why”, or they just generally felt that it was something to get over and done with.” Having gained a better understanding of the general landscape of funeral directing, it didn’t take long for Sarah to realise there must be another approach. “I wanted to change how people started their bereavement journey for the good, beginning, perhaps, with the way we talk about death, dying and funerals - and the way we plan for all things surrounding that.”
After reading up and carrying out plenty of research, Sarah decided she was eager to open a funeral service that wasn’t based on pre-conceived notions of what people should think or feel. At the heart of her approach is one central purpose: “It should be a service that lets people know what is available and in turn help them work out what is most helpful for creating something that reflects the person who has passed away.”
People have varying attitudes towards funerals - from out-and-out celebration of life with an alternative twist to something more sombre, reserved and, ostensibly, traditional. “We always ask about what the person would have liked so we get a sense of whether it should be a big celebration or something more low-profile”, says Sarah. However, for her it’s the bespoke, personal touches that can add something unique to the whole process: “The journey of planning a funeral can actually be quite positive”, she says. “I feel strongly about it being a chance to create a ritual that truly reflects the person who has dies, and it helpful for people who are attending. You can’t take away the fact that someone has sadly passed away, but there are small and inexpensive things you can do to genuinely make the funeral a beautiful and creative expression of them as a person.”
Typically, many directors offer a traditional or alternative service but Full Circle Funerals doesn’t instantly fall into either of those categories, instead delivering something bespoke and essentially whatever works for you. “It can be difficult to explain what we can offer so I guess one challenge we have is to completely understand how to get the messaging right and pitch our service perfectly.”
The business has been running since 2016 and is still growing as a result. At this stage a certain degree of custom comes from word-of-mouth, recommendations and, to an increasing level, those who have direct experience of attending on of their funerals. “Traditionally most people don’t think beyond just going to their local funeral director, but we get many coming from quite far away as a result of our more positive approach.”
Despite being clear about what they want to achieve, Sarah and her team have worked to ensure that they’re still known as a option for the traditionally-minded. “Sometimes people think that we don’t do church funerals or wooden coffins so we’ve had to clarify our options better, while sticking to our original business vision which hasn’t changed at all. Our job is to change expectations and one of the things we say to people is that yes, this is a job that needs to be done but together we can make this into something that you will find helpful and memorable for the right reasons.”
Ultimately, Sarah’s aim is to help the customer do whatever they think is best at the time, and use her team’s experience to be respectful and compassionate: “In this line of work it’s so important to understand that some people aren’t comfortable talking about it whereas others are bursting with ideas and have a clear idea of what they think would be the perfect arrangement. People go through life barely discussing about funerals and then all of a sudden they’re placed in a position where they not only have to talk about it but find a funeral director and arrange the whole event.”
The business utilises social media to share examples of work they have done previously also give an idea of the kind of options that are available to the people that reach out to them. “We won the Best Modern Funeral Director in the UK award in 2017 and that has been great because people can search for that and find us. We also boost published Facebook posts to show that we’re approachable, sometimes running competitions and giveaways for family related occasions like Father’s Day.” Like all subject matter, there are natural limits to what is appropriate for social media and the funeral directing business is no exception; any content relating to ceremonies themselves is deemed to be sensitive in nature and not as such not considered for publishing.
Considering the nature of her business, Sarah’s answer to how she defines success is a measured one: “When a family member or friend feels like they created something truly special that they were proud of and their loved one would have enjoyed. It also feels like a success when someone calls us and asks for help because their friend has recommended us.” It goes without saying that, despite the influx of user tracking, algorithms and targeted promotions, word of mouth is still one of the most powerful advertisements around.
That said, there are larger, longer-term goals in mind at Full Circle Funerals. “I’d hope that in five to 10 years’ time we will have helped raise expectations so the people of West Yorkshire and beyond will go into planning a funeral with a bit more knowledge and positivity. If we could generally improve how people approach the process, that would be wonderful.”
Q: What one thing would you change about your business or industry if you could?
A: Industry wise, I would change a lot of things. I think funerals need to become much more personal and less patronising. It needs to be opened up rather than funeral directors withholding all the information and control, I just don’t believe that is necessary. I think it should be more death-positive.
Many people would assume that working in the funeral industry could be an intensely challenging (and potentially exhausting) pursuit, but Sarah explains how rewarding it is to assist people in creating something special for a person they hold dear. “The families you can help, the messages you receive on the day saying they really enjoyed it, even asking if it’s OK that they feel so positive: our answer is always a resounding ‘yes’ as it’s what we work so hard for. It’s all such a privilege.”
Q: If you weren’t running Full Circle Funerals, what would you be doing instead?
A: I’m all for career changes! At the moment, this is exactly what I want to be doing. I truly believe there are so many wild and wonderful things you can do in the world but right now, I wouldn’t change what I’m doing, I’m extremely passionate about my business.
The UK has many modern funeral directors in the south so it works well for Full Circle Funerals to be based in Yorkshire. “I like that we’re based here and we’re trying to enforce a positive attitude but if we could move anywhere in the world, it would be somewhere warm and sunny because the weather can definitely affect how you’re feeling. I would stay where we are but change the weather!”
The grieving process is a difficult one at the best of times and it’s often even harder to talk about it frankly, so if Sarah could employ anyone to work at Full Circle Funerals to advise her staff and potential customers, it would be Prince Harry. “I think it’s fantastic that he’s using his personal experience of bereavement to influence and help others. He has spoken about everything so openly and publicly so I’d love to see him make more noise about grief to show how it is hard but that it is also perfectly OK as an experience.”
“I’d employe someone who understands and uses their status to help people speak about it, so maybe also Rio Ferdinand after he spoke out about his wife and the way he dealt with his young children through the grief and sadness.” The ex-footballer was featured in a BBC documentary in 2017 following him as he kept his family, his work and his own mental health in tact through an incredibly testing time.
Sarah finishes with yet more words of understanding and encouragement: “Sometimes people may think that what they want from a funeral is odd but it rarely is. We do a lot of validating and reassuring to make customers aware that whatever they’re feeling is okay and whatever you want from a funeral, as long as it’s within the law, is not right or wrong. When someone visits us, it’s not about the staff or their emotional involvement, it’s about facilitating the person’s choices.”
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