Trade Tuesday: in the business of...death?
We love to reflect on the many trades that make up our heritage. Fools & Horses is our family's way of raising a glass to the grit, care and resourcefulness of the generations that came before us. Because, hell, after all that work, they deserve a glass of something nice.
Having a funeral director for a dad had its perks. Being dropped off at school in a hearse, for example, made me a bit of a legend to my nine and ten-year-old peers. Their morbid curiosity made me the recipient of many-a-grim question as small crowds of my classmates gathered around me in the playground at break time. I always had answers, of course. Wildly off base and distorted for effect, but answers nonetheless.
It wasn’t until I was sixteen or seventeen, when I started working for my dad during the summers, that I saw what really goes into this job. Sure, there are situations that most people might find uncomfortable. My first job, for example, was to collect an elderly lady, Mrs. Smith, who had died on holiday in the south of Wales, about seven hours from our funeral home. Now, seven hours is a long time to be in a car and service stops are unavoidable. Of course, it wouldn’t be advisable to leave a body alone in a carpark while stopping for sausage and chips so the other driver and I would take it in turns to take a break. There were conversations between Mrs. Smith and I while I waited each time… it just happens.
But funeral directing is not just about managing logistics and the paperwork necessary to plan and carry out a funeral. Nor is it solely about dealing with the dead. The real job – the one which is of so much importance – is in dealing with the living: the family and friends left with a hole in their lives that was once filled with the person they lost.
It takes a great deal of empathy and compassion for human feelings to do this kind of work. I never knew my great grandfatherJoseph Sheard, but if there’s one thing that both my dad and my grandad had in common it was that they both possessed an incredibly caring nature. I saw first-hand how much the people in our community loved and respected each of these men. When I was a boy my dad and I could hardly walk ten feet in our village of Mirfield without someone stopping us to chat to him for what seemed like forever. My dad would oblige every time, no matter what we’d set out to do that day. It always felt to me as if my dad had touched the lives of almost every single resident of our town at some point in time. His compassion and caring touch when dealing with people who were in grief; the listening ear he always offered at that time and for many years thereafter was just an encapsulation of his immensely kind nature.
My Great Grandad, Joseph Sheard, established in 1922 as a blacksmith and funeral director in Grange Moor, West Yorkshire. It was not unusual to combine funeral directing with another trade in those days. He moved the family to nearby Mirfield around 1940, during the war when he bought a joinery business and became a joiner and undertaker.
I saw the very same thing with my grandad well into his older years. He had a hard life – one which involved tragedy, a world war and some very hard, laborious work, the scars from which remained to remind him. It was a life that might make another person angry and embittered. Yet, when our daughter, Azalea, saw this picture of him (below) for the first time her first words were, “He looks like a really kind man.” She says something every day that makes me so proud of her own empathetic nature because, let me tell you, a kinder man never lived. All the hardship and hard work were never able to dull his gentle, caring nature. This is how I remember him – and I’m certain it’s how the town in which he made his living remembers him too.
Joseph’s son-in-law, Fred John Armitage (my grandad), worked for him as a joiner and also helped him on the funeral side, eventually taking over the business in 1958.
The business then passed again from son-in-law to son-in-law when my dad, Victor Goodchild, took over in 1986. Three generations of hard-slog – you’re damn right it’s time to build a beer shed: