The Sharp End: In the last waiting room

A rare glimpse behind the black curtain, as Dave Waller spends a day at a funeral directors.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I've been sent to a funeral directors. I should have known I'd end up here at some point, but at least I arrive sitting in the front of the car, not lounging in the back.

My hosts at David Hendy Funeral Services in Camborne, Cornwall, had asked how well I'd handle seeing my first dead body. I guess I'll find out. But if it involves blacking out on the cold floor and going back to my editor sans story, I might end up riding in the business end of that hearse sooner than I think.

David's son Adrian greets me dressed in a smart white shirt, black waistcoat and impossibly shiny shoes. 'It's all kicked off here,' he says, in hushed tones. Out back, he explains that his brother Martin has been busy collecting bodies. There are three in the next room. It makes for a depressing business, I muse. When the office isn't dead, the people in the fridge are.

Adrian shows me a cadaver. A cold cloud floats out as the fridge door opens. He pulls out a shelf, and I find myself staring down at the mortal remains of the tiny Mrs S. She looks like a Madame Tussauds waxwork. It's the shock of grey hair that gets me: it looks remarkably realistic. Then I remember it is real. But that's it - the wooziness never comes. The only weird thing is trying to work out how strange this is supposed to feel.

Life may be a rollercoaster, but when the time comes to get off, it is all very matter-of-fact. So I think, as Mrs S glides back into the fridge and Martin joins us for a fag break. 'I'm struggling after that volcano pizza last night,' says Adrian, rubbing his gut.

You often hear how a dry sense of humour develops among those who work surrounded by death. Nurses and doctors, for example. It's a counterbalance to the horrors they see. Martin was in at 8.30 dressing a body, suturing the mouth closed with stitching behind the top lip and in the nostrils. Adrian tells me he had to leave the room the other day. He was watching someone cleaning out the insides of a corpse's cranium, after the brain had been removed and left gunk seeping through the ears. No surprise, then, that the brothers share many a dark joke.

Back out front, the tone is one of professional respect. Adrian tells me that the director has to organise everything from the gravediggers to the music. I see that one woman will be going out to a Cliff Richard CD. The longest of all summer holidays.

Adrian takes a call, and the holding music Greensleeves fills the room as he fetches his brother. A 48-year-old man has died, and his son wants someone to collect the body from the hospital tomorrow. The team takes three similar calls today. That's one thing going for the trade: there will always be business. The firm averages about 180 services a year.

Funeral directors still tend to be family firms. But what makes somebody decide to start one? David tells me he used to be a joiner, and someone offered to buy his firm just when the local funeral business came up for sale. From cabinets to corpses - surely that's not a switch that's easily made? But for David, the hard part was building a reputation from scratch, word of mouth.

Now, two of his sons are involved too. Martin was a chef before he joined his dad nine years ago. He's happy to keep the cooking as a hobby while he works here. I agree it's better that way round. Adrian was a senior financial adviser at Barclays, then a music producer and DJ. Having been around when their dad started working from home, both say it's a natural progression.

'You get to know a lot about people's experiences of death,' says Adrian. 'And that teaches you what life is about. You can be the hardest gangster head-kicker, but when your mum dies, you become as small as anyone.'

Mid-afternoon, a man is due to meet Martin to arrange the funeral of his mother. In the end, his sister comes instead - he couldn't face it. She's incredibly chipper as her voice floats through the frosted glass door, and she thanks Martin as she leaves. Martin never knows what to expect, he tells me later: some clients can barely speak, others despise the one they're burying. It's a unique insight into how families function. His brother emerges from the loo. 'I really regret having that pizza last night,' he says.

A van pulls up in the car park. It's a delivery of coffins. I help the driver carry one in. He's a thin old chap with big grey hair and a bulbous drinker's nose. 'Death isn't really my thing,' he says. Probably for the best. This job doesn't demand passion. Professionalism is enough.

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