James Showers of Family Tree Funerals talks about his ‘people first’ approach.
“I used to be a carpenter” James tells me. “This was a traditional career path for undertakers but I didn’t know it at the time. Builders and carpenters were often undertakers because they had the people, the wood and the wagons.”
Growing up there was little question of a career other than to be the fifth generation of his family to join the Gurkhas. After winning a scholarship to Sandhurst, James was lost when he failed the medical exam due to colour-blindness. “It came as a big blow”, he tells me. “So at 17 I ran away to South America to escape the shame, and I worked as a cowboy on cattle ranches for a year”. After Exeter University James got a job in advertising in London, then Toronto, and then as an advertising head-hunter in London. He lived in the rainforest in Kauai and taught yoga in Canada for ten years.
James explains that it was the dismal funeral of his father, compared with the uplifting one for his mother that made him decide to be an undertaker – although perhaps not a very traditional one. He felt that his father had been treated with an anonymous detachment which simply made more misery, and he knew that there was a better way. James trained at a national chain of funeral directors but couldn’t bear the way it was done. “The families would see the funeral arranger for 45 minutes. In that time they had to choose flowers, music, hymns, cars, coffin, urn, the minister, everything. On the day of the funeral a complete stranger would turn up: the Funeral Director. It was slick and completely without atmosphere – chilling in its formality. Bereavement is bad enough without adding that layer of forced formality and tension. I thought, ‘I can’t be a part of this’ and decided to start my own funeral company. My approach as an undertaker is that we are people first; only after that, can all the elements that go into making a funeral be decided. We spend time talking about the person who has died, what they were like, sometimes the background as to why they were like that. And we work with the family to design a funeral around that individual.”
In the beginning James operated from his home in Brownshill. He built a timber-framed chapel of rest in the garden. It was rose covered and surrounded by birds. Families could wander around the setting and sit and have a cup of tea or a glass of wine. James felt it was deeply respectful in its beauty and tranquillity. James later moved the business into town, where he settled for 13 years at the Old Painswick Inn on Gloucester Street.
In 2018, Family Tree Funerals moved to its new home, No. 1 Middle Street. This beautiful bright premises provides a peaceful place for people to come and talk and arrange a funeral. The rooms are stylish, comfortable and calm. He has been joined by Jane Diamond, who has run the Death Café in Nailsworth for three years, and is expert at advising on preparations for the end of life – areas such as Living Wills, Advance Directives, the legalities of Do Not Resuscitate wishes and Lasting Power of Attorney appointments. Family Tree offer this advice as part of their funeral planning service.
James tells me their funerals range from the ornate – with a band, hundreds of guests, catering and an all-day farewell – to the simplest ten minute service. “We recently held the funeral of a fine old man who worked the last horse-drawn coal delivery service in London. We arranged for a horse and cart, and for the family to ride with their grandad, legs dangling over the side”. Earlier this year, following the sad loss of environmental heroine, Polly Higgins, James sourced a classic Daimler hearse, green in colour and fuelled by refined chip fat. But James explains that funerals don’t have to be elaborate. “I recently worked with a family for whom we had designed a very simple funeral. It was intimate and informal, crafted for the lifestyle and character of their mother. When I saw them some weeks later they said they couldn’t stop telling people about the funeral and Family Tree. It was just about matching the funeral to the essence of the person who has died and so honouring them in this deep way. People don’t remember the coffin or the hearse or the chaps in black – but they do remember the feeling.”
Family Tree Funeral Company, 1 Middle St, Stroud GL5 1DZ,
tel: 01453 767769