Poppy's story — Why I became a funeral director

Poppy Mardall, modern funerals

Four minute read

I grew up in a family concerned with justice and focused on meaningful work. My mum was a social worker, my dad taught history and their open perspective on the world shaped me.

I studied art and became an ‘expert’ at Sotheby’s auction house although, in my twenties, I certainly didn’t feel like one. I loved handling and researching art and I appreciated the lessons Sotheby’s taught me about looking after clients: treating people with respect and kindness, listening to their individual needs and going out of my way to support them.

During this time, I started volunteering as a Samaritan. I spent three evening shifts and one night shift a month talking with people who were facing a tough time in their lives. I felt at home with my fellow volunteers and realised that I needed to find a vocation where I could be of frontline service to people.

I left my job in 2011 and travelled in Ghana for a month where I contracted typhoid and was ill for eight months. That was a bit of a blow but it gave me time to reflect.

While I was recovering, a number of television exposés on the funeral sector caught my attention. Manipulative sales techniques, poor care for the dead and an inflexible approach characterised a sector in need of fresh thinking.

I reached out to innovators in the sector including The Good Funeral Guide and The Natural Death Centre. They put me in touch with progressive funeral directors who were kind enough to let me learn from them.

“I wanted to empower and support people to have better experiences of funerals by making informed choice and gentle, thoughtful care the norm."

Looking back, I can see the transition from art expert to funeral director took some of my friends and family by surprise. We live in a society that considers death to be threatening and strange, and it may have looked like I was throwing away a perfectly good and respectable career. But, for me, it was clear that this was the right choice to make.

I wanted to empower and support people to have better experiences of funerals by making informed choice and gentle, thoughtful care the norm.

The more I saw in the sector, both good and bad, the more I knew that my open approach, empathy and emotional intelligence could help challenge this sector to be the best it could be.

Find out why we believe funeral directors should be upfront about costs

The name ‘Poppy’s’ felt like the right fit for the company. It was fresh and friendly and made it clear that I was real and accountable — the symbolism of remembrance connected too.

We started slowly, offering the kind of simplicity, choice and flexibility many people were looking for but struggling to find.

Within the first twelve months, our modern, down-to-earth approach was serving a large group of people, from all different walks of life, who felt under-served by the status quo. We grew fast and within three years moved into our own beautiful headquarters in Lambeth Cemetery in Tooting.

“I wanted our clients to feel deeply cared for and listened to."

I knew from the beginning that our person-centred approach would be what set us apart. I felt that the sector had become obsessed with itself: the shiny hearses, the expensive coffins, the funeral directors marching about in their finery with inflexible judgements about what a funeral ‘should’ be.

For me, it was important to bring the actual people involved back into the centre. I wanted our clients to feel deeply cared for and listened to. And I wanted them to know how beautifully, gently and thoughtfully we cared for their dead friends and relatives.

Of course, in order to do this, we needed great people in our team. I met Isabel (our former Head of Operations) a few months after we launched — her warmth, care and confidence has been instrumental in developing the team. We’ve grown the team thoughtfully and carefully since then, developing and nurturing our culture to ensure we retain what makes us special.

Hear from some of Poppy's team about why they choose to work here

I am so proud of what we’ve built at Poppy’s: the gentle care we provide for each and every person in our mortuary, and the way that we empower and support our clients. But these high standards are not yet the norm across the sector.

I am acutely aware of the need to nurture this seed we have planted so it can help a wider community of people — by serving our clients and, more broadly, by informing the public so they can express their wishes and get what they need from funerals and funeral directors. It’s an exciting journey and I feel privileged to work alongside my amazing team to make it happen.

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