Ten years of pioneering great death care — what now and what next for Poppy’s?

Poppy's funerals team

Five minute read

Ten years ago, I founded Poppy’s amid a hailstorm of exposés into the funeral sector. I knew little about funeral directors, but what I did know alarmed me.

I watched documentary after documentary that revealed poor, and occasionally appalling, standards. They showed manipulative sales techniques, sky-high and inflexible pricing and no concern for environmental practice. Services were designed to suit the funeral director with little choice or personalisation. To an outsider like me, it was shocking.

Our revolutionary mission

In this context, our founding mission felt revolutionary.

I wanted to provide transparent, flexible, ethical death care for my community. The same care I’d want and expect for myself and the people I love.

I believed funerals could and should be so much better — gentler, more thoughtful, less expensive, more flexible, less environmentally-polluting. This service should not be an ‘alternative’ — it should be the basis of mainstream funeral care.

I started with questions — what does ‘good’ look like? What does ‘great’ look like? Not just for our living and dead clients, but also for our team, our community and the planet. How do we make great care normal and accessible for everyone?

This is how the seeds of Poppy’s were sown. Ten years on, we are still asking and answering the same questions. We are still committed to the same mission.

How Poppy’s started

We launched in 2012 with a standalone direct cremation service. This allowed our clients to have a simple, respectful cremation without the need for ceremony. No other funeral director within reach of London offered anything like this. We used a wooden coffin, a simple hearse and delivered the ashes back to the family or friends in a cardboard urn.

Care for the dead meant getting people clean and then dressed — if the family wished — or otherwise wrapped in natural calico. We removed any clinical paraphernalia like IV lines or catheters.

We steered well clear of embalming which I knew to be highly toxic and almost always unnecessary. Funeral directors normally line their coffins with plastic ‘cremfilm’, but our coffin was plastic free. Our approach was simple, natural, affordable and environmentally conscious because these needs were not being met by the funeral sector at large.

Our clients started asking us for more than direct cremation. The strength of our reputation as ethical, down-to-earth and professional meant that word got out fast. Of course, we said "yes" to practically everything.

Ten years on: What has Poppy’s become?

Shaped by those early experiences, our team still says "yes" whenever we can. We stay open, curious and free from judgement no matter what we’re asked.

We look after our living and dead clients beautifully, like the precious individuals they are. We work to reduce our environmental footprint however we can. We are fully transparent — our sector-leading Estimator allows people to design their funeral and get a quote from their own home, at their own pace. We share clear, objective information freely, so people can make the best decisions for themselves.

Of course, we haven’t got everything right along the way. I wince at the pace we worked in those early days. Sometimes, in going the extra mile for our clients, I know I pushed myself and others around me too hard. I was young, focused and ambitious and I didn’t know any better. I am relieved and proud we’ve built a team structure at Poppy’s that can match ambition with a commitment to sustainability.

Ten years on: What still needs to change?

Ten years have passed. Everything and nothing has changed.

I am thrilled that almost all funeral directors now offer direct cremation, that big chains advertise their services with motorcycle hearses and pink cardboard coffins, and that one of the sector’s biggest corporate providers has a new, young, female CEO who promises culture change. But there is much more work to do.

Lack of regulation means that standards of care for the living and dead still go unmonitored. Yes, it’s great to see alternative coffins and hearses in advertising campaigns, but meaningful choice and personalisation means more than ‘selling more stuff’.

We need to embed into death care a deep respect for the beautiful individuality of a grieving person’s needs and wishes, whatever they may be. We need, as funeral directors, to meet our clients where they are, shaping our services around their specific circumstances. There is no ‘right’ way to have a funeral. The right way is the way that is right for you.

Clare Montagu and Poppy Mardall outside Poppy's HQ in Lambeth cemetery

Ten years on: What next for Poppy’s?

There’s so much further to go at Poppy’s too. We want to help many, many more people get the exceptional and holistic support they need and deserve when someone dies.

For us, this means tripling the number of people we serve across Greater London over the next three years. We want great care to be the norm — not a boutique experience that only those in the know can access. We want Poppy’s to be at the forefront of driving that change.

We also want to spread objective, useful information, so that if someone can’t access our service, they are still equipped with facts and questions that they can use to ensure the funeral director they employ is good enough.

Thank you

It is such an exciting time to be at Poppy’s. We have a rocket of a new CEO in Clare Montagu and a team raring to serve and grow. We are formalising our commitment to sustainability in the future on our journey to B Corp accreditation. There is so much opportunity and so much to do. Our solid and confident position owes everything to the people who worked so hard to make Poppy’s what it is today.

Thank you to everyone reading this — for spreading the word about great death care, opening up conversations about what can and should be possible for everyone and for telling your colleagues, clients, friends and families about Poppy’s. We simply would not have got to this point without you.

Over the next ten years, we will work hard to maintain your trust and make you proud. We look forward to updating you on the next chapter of the Poppy’s story.

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