No one likes to talk about it. Most of us are literally scared to death of it, but Benjamin Franklin had the right idea when he said “in this world nothing can be said to be certain like death and taxes”. That’s right, at some point the grim reaper will pay us all a visit so you can imagine my initial apprehension when I recently visited Helliwells Funeral Directors.
Established in 1924 Helliwells Funeral Directors now boasts three offices, with one in Barnoldswick, another in Brierfield and last, but certainly not least, one in bonnie Colne. It was there where I met the father and daughter team, owner Keith Lawson and manager Sharon Lawson to discover how and why they choose to deal with death daily.
Keith’s introduction to life as a funeral director began when he helped a friend who was also a funeral director collect a body. “I had been a farmer. I was out of work and I knew a funeral director. He rang me to help him move a body. We went to this house and upstairs to the bedroom and he said, ‘I’ll take the head if you take the legs.’ The fella had no legs!”
In his life, Keith has dealt with a lot of death, and I wondered how he managed not to get too depressed…
“Most funeral directors have a sense of humour,” he grins, “If you don’t and you just treat it as a job, it can harden you. It’s not a sense of humour about the industry, it’s just a general sense of humour that you’ve just got to have.”
Keith joined Helliwells in 1981 when they were based on Elizabeth Street in Nelson and continued to work for them for ten years. It was owned by Mrs. Stott at the time, who then offered him and his wife Marguerite the opportunity to buy the business, which he did, and it was in 1990 that Helliwells moved to their Colne office, aptly naming it Stott House.
“A lot of what I do is normalising, letting them know that what they’re feeling is natural”
“Going back 40 years ago everybody who died stayed at home. There was no need for a chapel of rest. In those days they wouldn’t be embalmed – you had to be quicker to the funeral. There were a lot that claimed to be funeral directors in those days. In Nelson there was almost 20. All were individual joiners who could make a good coffin, but that was where it stopped.”
And as many of us know, when it comes to the loss of a loved one, there’s more to a funeral than just a wellmade coffin…
“Where families are concerned, you have got to work with them,” smiles Sharon. “You’ve got to be what that family wants you to be because you are there to help them in that short space of time, you’re there to help that family.
“Continuity is important,” says Sharon, from the first initial meeting right through to the funeral, the family will have that one point of contact.
They won’t get one person who arranges the funeral, and then someone they’ve never met looking after them on the day. We care, it’s about having empathy.”
These two really do care, and since joining Helliwells in 1996 Sharon runs the company on a day-to-day basis and continues to arrange and conduct funerals while dealing with the families.
“I wanted to be a funeral director since I was 13,” grins Sharon, “when I left school, Dad told me that I needed to go and work for somebody else for a while. He wasn’t just going to conjure up a job for me – and if a job at Helliwells came along, possibly I’d get one. He told me to go work for a bad boss before because then I’d appreciate a good one!” She laughs.
And I presume he’s a good boss, I ask. “The best!” She replies. These two are passionate about their work, and in Keith’s words “gain their sense of job satisfaction from helping others.”
They’ve assisted thousands of families and continue to offer expert assistance and support to people when they are at their lowest. Many consider funeral directors as people who cater for those who have died, and they do, but what really sets them apart is their continuous support to the living. They were the first funeral directors in the area to offer a free bereavement counselling service, and 25 years on the service continues to be an integral part of what they do, thanks to Julie Doyle.
With a background in nursing, Julie realised that a lot of people were struggling with the emotional side of life, so decided to train as a counsellor, and it was then that Keith approached her to launch the service. “I give everybody a phone call initially, about five or six weeks after, to check in and see how they are doing,” says Julie. “Most people come back and say, ‘we’re okay’, but then there are people who don’t have support, or are just struggling in general and are finding it difficult, if they want some one-to-one counselling, I can offer that. I can either visit them at home or they can come here: whichever they prefer. There’s no time limit, it’s open-ended. It doesn’t matter whether it is three months, six months or 12 months down the line. There is no cut off point.
“A lot of what I do is normalising, letting them know that what they are feeling is natural. It’s not a problem to be fixed, it’s an emotion, it’s the flipside of loving somebody.”
Where many of the big companies charge for offering a 24-hour a day service, there is no charge with Helliwells and they continue to show their commitment to their clients, by offering a package which includes everything associated with a funeral through Golden Charter. Sharon tells me that cremations tend to be around £3,300. “Golden Charter was established for the independent funeral director,” says Sharon. “It offers folk the chance to pay for their funeral at today’s prices. If you’ve got that plan for 20 years then in 20 years’ time, what a funeral might cost, you’ve got it at today’s prices. You can have everything you want; you can write down your music, flowers, hymns etc… you have got control over what’s going to happen.
Keith goes on to say, “A lot of these companies offering pre-paid funerals, just want to take your money. I believe building societies are even offering pre-paid funerals, wills and financial advice now. But, what does a building society know about them? You go to a funeral director for your funeral, you go to a financial advisor for your finance and you go to a solicitor for your will. You don’t do it over a counter.
Very true. And after chatting with Keith and Sharon it’s a blessing to know that this pair will continue to look after their customers with love, kindness and dignity right until the end.
Helliwells Funeral Service Ltd 429/431 Burnley Rd, Colne BB8 8LA 01282 870898