Friday, 21 March 2014

A Funeral Company caring for Living, Dying and Dead. Introducing ....

Elizabeth Way & Company.  
Independent Family Funeral Co-ordinators.
"Our Family Caring for Yours"

I want to introduce you to a Funeral Director with a difference.

Funeral Director Gail Martin Stevens in her bright and colourful family meeting room
Introducing the very glamorous and dedicated Gail Martin Stevens.  I have long wanted to visit Gail and to see her in action as a Funeral Director in her independent family run business in Mossley, Lancashire.  And so, three years or so after we met, I came up to visit Elizabeth Way Funeral Services.  I have often asked Gail about her work, and been fascinated by how much variety there is in running her funeral business.  I could never, though, quite get a handle on what she actually did.  There seemed to be so many different strands to her work, so many people involved, it was never simply a matter of getting the bodies in and disposing of them. There is the community work Elizabeth Way does, there is the after care service Gail and her staff offer to the bereaved, there is the way Gail writes all her services from scratch after a long day in the office, and there is the way she and her staff take each family as unique, and spends time on their care alongside the care of the person who has died.  Gail can, amongst other things, drive the cars, wash the bodies, embalm if required, plan personalised funerals, comfort the bereaved, improvise, think on her feet and think outside the box. (So to speak). And actually, so can all of her staff do these things.  "We are a team," they say.  "We help each other, and we can do much of each other's jobs."

It's easy to look into the Elizabeth Way shop from outside.  It is painted black outside, but it is light and bright and colourful inside.  Warm and friendly, it is intended to be welcoming and comforting - the walls are hung with prints by Gustav Klimpt, which I like and consider a bold move.  Bright flowers everywhere, bright soft chairs and sofas, cushions, bright gentle lighting, plenty of daylight coming through large spotlessly clean windows; the shop is not a gloomy, distant, bleak place in which to talk in hushed tones about coffins and ashes. It's not a place you have to go to because there has been a death, a place you would avoid it if you could because the need to visit implies loss and horror and bodies;  it is not a place to be told gravely what you can have by people who you don't know.  Gail and her staff make you feel  like you are visiting a friend in a loving environment; a place where the staff will sit with you and listen, give you mugs of tea, advise you and help you plan exactly what you want.  (You don't like coming to the funeral of your dear family member in the big funeral limo?  Take your own car, no problem.  You want to help carry the coffin?  Fine, we can arrange that. And so on.)

It's a place of life and living, while dealing with death and the dead.  "I had a lady knock on the shop door once," said Gail. "I'm dying," she said to Gail who answered it.  Gail's reply typifies Elizabeth Way -  "Come right in. I'll get the kettle on."  The lady, now dead and gone, was able to sit in comfort with Gail - over many visits - as if over a kitchen table, and plan and talk and take her time to do what we all could not imagine having to do, plan our own impending funeral.

Bright windows, fresh approach, feminine approach
Flowers, Klimpt prints, welcoming and comforting

The staff at Elizabeth Way are made of the same stuff as Gail.  The three branches of Elizabeth Way are staffed mostly by women. Though this is incidental, Gail employs anyone who does the job well, I wonder if it is possibly why the shops are so comfortable, bright, light and friendly, and why the atmosphere of the place is so different to what we expect of a Funeral Parlour. The branch manager though, Anthony, is most definitely not a woman.  Anthony says that you only get one chance at a funeral, you have to get it right.  Each member of the team is proud of being of service and spoke today of the attention to detail that they consider so vital.  These are our families, they said, this is our community.  We all help each other, we are a small team and we can all do each other's jobs if necessary. Anthony told me he would work for nothing if he had to.  He loves his work, and takes pride in being responsible for the three branches.  He showed me the software that he has installed to log all the information necessary for each client. It is very detailed indeed, and enables him and the staff to know exactly who is who and what each funeral plan entails.  He came, he told me, from another large funeral chain, where there was no attention to detail, no kind touches, no team work.  It was a conveyor belt where to get as many funerals as possible through the books was the goal.  At Elizabeth Way, Anthony said, there is pride in each funeral.  There is a personal interest in the welfare of each client and their family, and a policy of doing the best for everyone. We all, he said, help each other.  Gail tells me that all the families love him.

Manager Anthony.  Dedicated, experienced and able to turn his hand to most things in the business.  And most definitely not a woman.

Tami is the Mortuary Assistant.

Tami, dedicated to making the dead look the best they can for the viewings, and taking enormous care to get everything right.
Tami is young, energetic and efficient and very kind.  Tami works solely in the tiny Mortuary at Elizabeth Way, preparing the bodies for viewing and arranging the viewing rooms.  She has another job as a nurse, and has often nursed the people who then come in to the funeral home to be prepared by her.  Today, there was one such customer, beautifully washed and brushed and lying in the viewing room in his pyjamas in the bed that is kept in there for this purpose.  I am told the bed makes the experience more normal, and less alarming.  Tami had nursed this fellow, and then had continued his care after his death, preparing him for his family to view and then to be buried.  Once again, in the mortuary room, the attention to detail was evident.  Tami has organised folders and white boards to contain all the possible information she could want.  Who was this person?  Where did they come in from?  Family?  What clothes did they have? Where were they going and when?  Personal details?  And so on.  Sometimes, Tami said, when they are really busy, she attends to the bodies in the viewing rooms which are kept cold.  Once, she said, there were fourteen bodies. "I had to take my washing and preparation equipment with me and go round to them, one after the other in various rooms, and dress them, preparing them for their viewings or funerals." Tami was very nice to me indeed when I spent time with her, as during one of her necessary procedures I fainted.  She had warned me that it was a bit difficult to watch at first, but I gamely said Ha! I'll be OK!  I had to sit down with my head between my knees half way through, as Tami had to call out that she has a fainter.  And then got me a cup of tea and a fan.  I just admired her skills.  Careful of both the living and the dead.

Jane, another very nice and kind blonde (ish) lady who works for Elizabeth Way. 
Gail runs the business with her daughter Elizabeth.  What is a funeral business?  I asked. What is it to you?  Gail and Elizabeth described it thus.  A large, soft, mohair blanket, wrapping you up with your arms free so that you are able to find your own way through your loss, but held and protected with warmth and softness by the team.  Gail added, that she approaches her work with the heart of a pupil.  I am always learning, she says.  And her daughter Elizabeth agreed.  We have care of and disposal of the body, and look after the families she says.  But don't get me wrong, they both say, we get some very difficult customers sometimes.  We do our best, but sometimes they really need understanding.  Sometimes, we only know a fraction of the story.  This is where we have to listen and follow our instincts.  Diane, who runs another of the branches of Elizabeth Way, says that people give a lot away by their body language.  Diane is firm but kind, and experienced. (Diane is blonde and glamorous.)

Gail is a Buddhist.  I wasn't always so calm, she says and her daughter Elizabeth laughs.  But I have found something that gives me a goal, says Gail, and I practice compassion, kindness and patience.  Gail's health is not too good these days, and though you would never know it, she has to practice patience with her own body.  Like her mother, Elizabeth has experienced some difficult times with her health.  It makes us understand more, she says.  It means we are able to deal with some very hard hitting issues.  

Gail's philosophy, and that of her staff, is to attend to the details in order to create a perfect funeral experience.  All types of people come to Elizabeth Way.  Some who are dying come to talk things over.  Families who have lost babies and children, families who have lost someone to suicide, people who want to be involved in the planning, people who are there under duress and don't want anything to do with funerals.  The staff take care of them all.  Elizabeth Way is open and cares for them all.  Gail's next project is to help raise awareness beyond her own community, of how wonderful a good funeral can be, and how it can be a powerful aid to managing the grieving process.  We all know this in theory, but Gail has worked on it in practice.  She will be a wonderful teacher, and I look forward to hearing more from and about her.

Gail, thinking outside the box.  Literally.  

Elizabeth Way & Company - Your Family Funeral Directors.  

18 Stamford Street, Mossley, OL5 0HR.

Tel: 01457 839247



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