In an industry dominated by 'men in black', Poppy Mardall cuts an unusual figure in the British funeral trade.
The founder of Poppy's Funerals and star of MT's 35 Women Under 35 list started her business five years ago, after quitting her job as deputy director at Sotheby's.
‘I’d be lunching with clients at Claridge’s or flying off to the States on a moment’s notice to value a Barbara Hepworth,’ she says. Exciting, yes. Fulfilling, no. ‘The job just didn’t feel like "me",’ she admits. ‘It was as if I was living someone else’s life but I kept crushing my instinct to leave.'
She eventually handed in her notice in 2011 with the vague idea of running matchmaking holidays or opening a clothes store for plus-sized women. She went to Ghana for some ‘head space’ and contracted typhoid. She was laid up for nine months. It was during that recovery period that she started thinking about starting her own funeral business.
‘There was a run of horrifying exposés on the funeral trade on TV that year and they made me really cross. That’s a good state to be in when you’re thinking about starting a business. I thought, "hang on, this is where I could make a difference",’ she says. ‘Both my parents had had cancer scares; I’d had those petrifying conversations about funeral arrangements and I knew what little choice there was for families.’
By her own admission, she was entirely unqualified; she’d never run her own business and she’d never actually seen a dead body. So she persuaded staff at a mortuary to let her watch them clean and dress a body, and shadowed funeral directors. She also learned about practices such as ‘facials’ (threading a wire though the upper and lower jaw to keep the mouth closed) and ‘hygiene treatments’ (another term for embalming: replacing blood and everything in the abdominal cavity with formaldehyde). ‘I vowed never to do anything like that,’ she says. ‘It’s horrific and invasive. Most families don’t have a clue what’s going on behind the scenes or understand what’s being sold to them.’
She launched Poppy’s Funerals in 2012, initially running the business from her home in Hammersmith while renting refrigerator space at the public mortuary. The company is now based at Lambeth Cemetery, where it has offices and its own mortuary in a converted chapel. Mardall says the process of finding premises was an ‘utter nightmare’: ‘It took us two years. Most commercial agents run a mile when you tell them you want to store dead bodies.’
Mardall has so far funded the business herself, finding ingenious ways to save money so that the funerals remain affordable. ‘When I started the business, I bought a van, decorated it with poppies and asked a friend to build a wooden deck so we could use it as a simple hearse,’ she says. ‘To make sure everything was secure and to test slippage, I made my dad get into a coffin, loaded him into the van and drove around a load of roundabouts. He’s such a great sport.’
Poppy's has organised 850 funerals in the past five years, employs seven people and is planning on expanding into north London. Mardall and her husband Chris, founder of arts club Love Art London, both work four days a week so they can each spend a day at home with their kids, Juniper (aged two) and Calon (four months). ‘I'd watch female colleagues returning to work after having children and notice how it was usually their careers that would suffer and how they'd be the ones doing the lion's share of parenting,' says Mardall. 'I never wanted the kids to be just my domain.'
Mardall says she enjoys telling people what she does – and shocking them: 'People are either really interested or they treat me like I’m suddenly infectious.’
Poppy Mardall is one of MT's 35 Women Under 35 stars. Our annual list recognises the country's brightest young businesswomen across all sectors. Want to feature in this year's list? Apply here. Nominations close on 30th April.