Introducing Poppy's new Chief Operating Officer

Clare Montagu, Poppy's new Chief Operating Officer, walking in the mountains

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Clare Montagu joins Poppy’s this week as our new Chief Operating Officer, leading our plans to reach more people and develop our service. Clare’s worked for a sexual health charity, as a political adviser and, most recently, with Trinity Hospice.

Here, Clare explains why she’s excited about her new role, how working in a hospice has encouraged her to talk more openly about death and dying, and her plans for her own funeral.

I first came across Poppy’s when I was working at Trinity Hospice. I was so impressed that I said to my mum, when Gran dies, we have to get these people in. And we did. Poppy’s were so brilliant in the way they supported my mother and her siblings. I was bowled over by their kindness.

Asking people what they want and talking things through with them costs nothing. When the Poppy’s team came to collect my gran, they asked my mum and her sister how they’d like to be involved. By contrast, when a friend’s partner died suddenly, the on-call funeral directors didn’t explain anything to him about what they were doing or what was going on.

Death is one thing which is guaranteed to happen to us all. I learnt from working in a hospice that being able to talk about death can help people make the best of the time they have left and help those left behind to manage their grief. People’s attitudes can be so different — some in denial, where they expect to get well even while they are dying, others very practical, and of course everything in between.

My whole career has been politics, sex and death. Friends who know me well understood why I was so excited about this job. But, just like working in a hospice, it’s harder to explain to people I don’t know so well. Sometimes people say, ‘oh, that’s really amazing’, or ‘oh, that’s really hard’. But it’s not really either of those things. It’s a job that’s meaningful, because I can lead a team in which everybody, no matter what job they do, is here to help people.

Whether you’re working for a business or a charity, what matters is whether, at its heart, it’s here to help people. What keeps me going are people and purpose, that’s what I look for in a job. Being part of a team who are all motivated to make a difference.

I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to grow the business, alongside Poppy’s team. We have so much to offer. The more people who can experience our care, the better. We need to take a wider view, and see what we can do to transform attitudes to death.

I’ve changed my mind recently about what I want for my own funeral. I always assumed I’d want to be cremated and I had vague ideas about where my ashes would be scattered — in the Thames, because I’m a Londoner, or near the South West coast path. But the ecological impact of cremation really bothers me now. Natural burial fits more with who I am — someone who needs to be physically active and to be outdoors.

Food and drink is a big thing in my family — we all love to cook and eat. My sister lives in New Zealand and works in the wine industry, making wonderful organic wines, so I have left some specifications about which wines I’d like served at my wake. Everyone knows that this is important to me, and that I’m less interested in the actual ceremony!

I grew up in London and now live in Brixton. You can get anything from Nour’s Cash and Carry in Brixton’s covered market close to where I live. It’s like an Aladdin’s cave. There’s every spice you can think of, nuts, honey, three types of dates, lots of middle eastern food, but much more than that too. Anything you need you can find there.

Getting people more comfortable talking about death is a massive, uphill challenge, particularly in Western culture. People don’t want to confront their own mortality. And I think it’s getting worse. I know so many people who haven’t even written their wills or talked about what care they want at the end of their lives. Talking about how you want to be cared for is a close cousin to talking about death.

We found in the hospice that people would make plans, but these might change in the cold light of day. The closer you get to having to make these decisions, the harder it can be to talk about it. What you think you wanted before, might not be what you want any more. It’s complicated for individuals and families, especially if you’ve never talked about this before. You need to keep having these conversations, keep checking in, but once you’ve started, it gets easier.

The pandemic has brought an opportunity to open up conversations, but there’s also a risk that people simply want to put what has happened behind them. We are going to see a shock to the health social care system, due to delayed diagnosis during the pandemic, and a shortage of care workers. As individuals and as a business, all we can do is keep talking and build on where those conversations are happening. That’s where I want to be.

Find out more about Poppy's team and why we do the work we do: Why I work at Poppy's and What it's really like working in a mortuary.

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