Why is a cemetery such a great home for a funeral director?

Poppy's HQ, the gatehouse in Lambeth cemetery, with spring blossom

Five minute read

We’re celebrating five years since Poppy’s moved into Lambeth cemetery. Poppy Mardall, explains why this has proved to be the perfect place for us.

A longer version of this article was first published in the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management Spring Journal.

At Poppy’s, the fresh approach we take to funerals means we want our clients to feel welcome, considered, empowered and supported. When searching for permanent and beautiful headquarters for Poppy’s, we had many questions about how we might achieve this in our physical spaces.

In particular, how could we work against the cliché of funeral directors, and particularly mortuaries, as scary or closed places?

A beautiful space

We needed to take into account important logistical considerations too. We knew our dead clients needed to be on site with us. I believe the worst of the horrors in the media — and which we see in practice at other mortuaries — regarding poor care for the dead stem from the traditional siloing of mortuary workers from funeral arrangers.

If you are collecting people who have died, all day, every day, and you don’t get the opportunity to ‘place’ them in the communities of those who love them, people start to lose the sense of purpose behind their work.

To me, this helps to explain the widespread culture in the sector of talking about and sometimes acting disrespectfully towards the dead.

Read more: Let’s open up our mortuaries to the public

We were clear we needed a beautiful mortuary space on the ground floor, with good access and parking, and inviting client rooms and office spaces for our living clients and teams. And it all needed to be together. In a busy city like London, this was a challenge.

Over a number of months we saw many, many, many sites. Beautiful shop-fronts with no provision for our dead clients. Large, logistically well-placed industrial estates were unwelcoming for the public and the team and did nothing to help us lift the concept of death care as the special and beautiful work it so clearly is.

Inside Poppy's mortuary in Lambeth cemetery chapel

Finding the perfect site

It was amidst a sense of growing frustration that we heard of an opportunity in Lambeth Cemetery in Tooting — two recently renovated buildings were available following years of no or limited use. The match was immediate. It made so much sense.

The first building, a gatehouse, gave us three beautiful, light rooms to welcome our clients with additional space upstairs for our team to work.

The second building, a stunning 19th-century burial chapel, had been designed with regard for the dead as its founding principle. It was full of light and fresh air. Logistically it was ideal. The doors were wide and welcoming to stretchers and coffin deliveries too.

Of course, there was work we needed to do to make the spaces habitable. Our natural approach to our dead clients means we didn’t need or want the chapel to feel unnecessarily clinical nor to smell of chemicals. So we laid down laminate wood flooring to feel as homely as possible. We installed a sink for hand-washing and built some free-standing coffin storage.

We built simple wooden screening around the doors of the chapel to protect the view of bringing people who had died into the building. And wonderful green-fingered members of our team designed and built stunning plant boxes around the screening to make it even more beautiful.

Natural, spacious and beautiful

We’ve been in the cemetery for five years now and it has been an all-round success. Two historically important buildings, which otherwise were being barely used, are now kept warm and in good condition.

Our clients can come somewhere peaceful, natural and beautiful. They can park if they are driving. They visit us in the Gatehouse where we have plenty of space. The meetings can take the time they need to take.

If friends or family want to spend time with the person who has died, we walk them thirty metres to our chapel mortuary where we have a welcoming, neutral room where they can be together, decorate coffins, hold impromptu intimate ceremonies and religious rituals.

Read more: Visiting someone at Poppy’s — your questions answered

Inside Poppy's HQ, sofas, pictures and fireplace

The value of being in nature

One of the highlights of being in the cemetery is access to our natural environment. Our work as funeral directors is inherently emotional and it can be so helpful to take a walk after a difficult conversation — leaning into the comfort of our natural surroundings can be nurturing and sustaining.

A mortuary like no other

Most funeral directors consider their mortuaries as places to keep the public away from. At Poppy’s, we chose to give our most beautiful, light-filled space to the dead.

We did this both because it is our gentle, thoughtful, natural care for our dead clients which sets us apart, and also because we know how influential the physical environment is on the quality of the care given. When our team cares for our dead clients, they do so in a space that feels beautiful and special.

A relationship based on values

Much of the success of our headquarters in the cemetery has been built on the relationship we have with Lambeth Council and the cemetery itself. We see Lambeth Council as a partner rather than as a traditional ‘landlord’. This means we communicate well and often.

We take the long view on our tenancy, investing in the buildings and caring for them thoughtfully, often taking actions that prioritise our community, the environment and the buildings themselves over and above making or saving money.

Our drive towards B Corp accreditation means we are often looking for ways to lessen the impact of our buildings and our work on the planet.

Looking towards the future

We have ambitious plans to grow Poppy’s so that client-centred, transparent, environmentally-conscious death care can be available to many more people.

We believe our focus on people and planet is well suited to working in partnership with cemeteries who have buildings that lie unused. Because the physical environments in which we provide death care matter hugely — working with a cemetery can be a partnership based on incredibly strong values.

Read about our new second location in East Sheen.

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