DG: Louise, you moved from a career based around fashion to becoming a Funeral Director, creating your own company, Poetic Endings. Designers Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood engaged with death. However, broadly speaking, fashion turns away from death. What attracted you towards it?
I’ve had quite a varied career – I went to fashion school, worked in magazine publishing and eventually ended up working with brands, helping them to stay relevant and meaningful to today’s customers.
I remember sitting in a boardroom with a particular client, who happened to be in fashion. We’d stayed up all night to work on a campaign and an ambulance was outside the building, sirens blaring. The person running the meeting expressed her disgust at the noise the ambulance was making and how it was ruining our meeting. I realised at that point that I couldn’t work in that environment forever. The ambulance was outside making a genuine difference to people’s lives; selling expensive handbags really wasn’t.
My Grandad died when I was 26. That was my first experience of a funeral. I realised how stuffy and irrelevant the funeral profession was and decided to do something about it. I wanted the whole experience of a funeral to have depth, meaning, relevance and beauty.
I’ve never shied away from depth and pain. That’s apparent in my work. And I still really love clothes. For me, they are a creative expression of my inner emotional landscape. The outfits worn by the Poetic Endings team are very carefully curated.
DG: A fearlessly curated death makes us think of Bowie. He turned his death, in 2016, into art with his final album, ‘Blackstar’. By staging his death, Bowie helped many listeners come to terms with his loss. We wonder if ornately staged, theatrical funerals, like Isabella Blow’s, can attain the same effect?
I was profoundly moved by Isabella Blow’s funeral – the tragedy of her death was reflected in the high drama of a traditional funeral with horses and plumes and the exquisite clothing people chose to wear. It was beautiful.
This style of funeral wouldn’t work for everyone. We always try to work with bereaved people to put together funerals which are relevant (a word I use constantly); not only relevant to the life of the person who has died, but the circumstances of the death and the people who are grieving.
People often assume that we like to turn funerals into celebrations of life and encourage everyone to have a party. Our work isn’t celebrating life or death, it’s finding a fitting way to acknowledge that someone has died, without shying away from difficult emotions.
DG: Western culture doesn’t prepare us for the shock of death. Much psychosis, addiction and depression results from fearing death and its impacts. Is your work inspired by any particular philosophy, or spiritual feelings?
I’ve taken inspiration from so many different cultures, approaches and philosophies. But underpinning everything I do is the belief that if we deal with the reality of how we’re feeling, whatever that might be, we’re more likely to be able to live a balanced, content and fulfilled life.
Most of our popular funeral poetry tells us not to feel what we’re really feeling. We’re told to smile, and not to cry. Not to stand at a grave and weep. Not to shed any tears. To continue as though absolutely nothing has changed.
But when someone has died, everything changes.
Bereavement happens to us. Grief is what we feel. Mourning is what we do.
Unless we find a way to express our grief – to mourn – our grief will stay stuck.
Pain demands to be felt. And if we don’t find a way to feel it, it will find a way to leak out into our lives – cue drinking too much, drugs, depression, overworking, anger, breakdowns. The list goes on.
DG: Your team is predominantly female. Are women better at handling death?
This isn’t on purpose. The main thing I look for is emotional intelligence, sensitivity and life experience. I never look at CVs or academic qualifications when considering whether someone should join the team. What I’m looking for is an ability to sit with discomfort and be with a bereaved person when they are in the depths of pain.
I really value creativity, imagination and a commitment to self-care. We can’t help others at their time of need if we can’t look after our own physical bodies and our emotional wellbeing.
I also work with several men who have these qualities. As they’re involved in most of the behind-the-scenes work, they’re not as visible as the women on our team, but they do this difficult work exceptionally well.
DG: In Eastern rituals of cremation, washing and dressing the body and touching the passed person’s lips with a flame is important. Western Funeral Directors have generally kept a more polite distance from the body. In your work, have you observed whether handling loved ones who’ve died helps people with their grief?
My experiences so far have led me to believe that it’s helpful to spend time with the person who has died. There’s something about seeing the person who has died as they are which seems to help in acknowledging the reality of what has happened.
For this reason, we don’t embalm people. My colleagues Annika and Joanna are specialists at sensitively caring for someone after they have died, without the use of embalming. Our work is about taking care of someone – washing their hair, removing the hospital tubes, dressing them in their favourite outfit – but never about making them look like they are still alive, which is the desired outcome of the American embalming approach.
Traditionally, funeral directors have created ‘chapels of rest’ – a room where people can ‘visit’ the person who has died. I’ve always felt that they’ve been designed to make the ‘viewing’ as brief as possible. They’re often dark, gloomy and full of religious artefacts. We’re very careful about the language we use. We don’t use that word, ‘viewing’. It implies a level of detachment, as though we’re ‘viewing’ a used car in a garage showroom or a new house.
We encourage people to be with the person who has died in a beautiful, light-filled setting. They can then use that time to say goodbye to their person in their own way, and we often help them work out what might be. It might be sitting in quietly with just the sound of birdsong, or it might involve writing a goodbye letter and placing it in the hands of the person who has died. We actively encourage children to be involved too, and have put things into place so they can have a positive experience.
When I first began exploring the world of funeral directors, I wondered what dark secret they must be hiding behind the dusty net curtains and urns of plastic flowers.
The gritty reality of death isn’t always beautiful, but it doesn’t need to be hidden from the public.
Louise Winter was in conversation with Soma Ghosh.
Photographs courtesy of Poetic Endings and SacredStones.