Funeral Directors Category: South East England
Gemma Pacitto. Gemma’s not just the funeral director at A J Brooke, she’s the founder and owner of the company and the person who does everything, from meeting families and helping them make arrangements for the funeral, washing and dressing the people in her care (every single one of them, Gemma won’t use gowns and believes everyone should be dressed before being placed in their coffins, even if just in a nightgown or pajamas) – to answering the phone any time day or night, every day of the year.
A J Brooke is named after Gemma’s two daughters, and the company is the fulfilment of a dream that began out of tragic circumstances. When Gemma was 16, her mother died suddenly. The family had already been devastated by the death of Gemma’s sister Natasha several years earlier, and, like most people, Gemma’s mother hadn’t thought about or planned for her death or funeral. The family was left in shock, but the kindness and care shown by the local undertakers made a lasting impression on Gemma, and from that point on she knew she wanted to work in the funeral industry.
Two years later, at the age of 18, Gemma left Devon and moved away, starting her own life and training as a nursery nurse. The urge to find a way into the very male-dominated funeral world stayed with her, although the fact that she was so young, petite and blonde meant that most of the old guard undertakers just laughed at the idea.
And then she got her chance. She met a man who ran his own funeral business, and who was well established in the local area. He was the president of the national trade association, and highly experienced in his trade. He offered to let Gemma come and work with him, and she jumped at the chance – and has never looked back.
“On the first day, I had to help him dress a little eight-year old boy,” says Gemma. “He said, ‘if you can cope with this, you can cope with anything’, and he was right.” From that day onwards, Gemma’s life changed. She was doing the job that she knew she had been born to do, and she soaked up everything that she was taught by her knowledgeable mentor. She learned everything about the business – everything, that is, apart from actually going out on the day of the funeral and conducting events. But that wasn’t a problem -when she decided she was going to open her own business, she just went out and watched other funeral directors conducting funerals. She soon realised that she could do everything just as well as they could.
And in 2009, Gemma opened her own funeral business. Most young mothers at the age of 27 with a newborn baby might think starting a new business of any kind would be a challenge too far, let alone one that required 24 hour a day attention. But Gemma is a powerhouse of energy, with a passion, determination and drive quite unlike anything we’ve ever come across. And she’s immensely likeable and lovely too.
Those two huge losses, her sister and her mother both dying while Gemma was still so young, made a massive impact on her. Her response to such grief has been to build an amazing legacy to them both. Gemma was determined not to waste a minute of her life, to achieve security and stability for her own family and to live life in a way that was meaningful and rewarding. The result is A J Brooke Funeral Directors. And the old guard of funeral directors have had to watch the young woman they mocked and laughed at go from strength to strength, first in the former premises in Bracknell, and more recently in the company’s new home in Ascot.
And she’s won them all over too. Local funeral directors send families to Gemma if they can’t accommodate their needs, she can carry out a funeral at very short notice which larger companies often can’t. She helps other firms too if she’s asked, lending her vehicles at short notice, or giving a hand where needed. It’s impossible not to like her, and to admire what she has created.
Even the most grizzled and misogynistic old undertaker would have to begrudgingly admit he was wrong to dismiss Gemma as a flighty bimbo. She works harder than most men we’ve met, and if she’s told she can’t do something, that makes her even more determined to prove she can. As we mentioned before, she dresses everyone that comes into her care herself, normally without help. And she never, ever cuts clothing to get it on to someone. She’d rather struggle for hours, gradually inching clothes on rather than cut them to save time.
She recalls occasions where she’s been faced with a very heavy person, 20 stone or more, and (male) staff from other companies watching incredulously as she maneuvered and manipulated the clothing into place by herself. Personal dignity is very important to her as well. The idea of the people being cared for by undertakers not having their dignity preserved makes her furious. She talks to the people she’s looking after while she cares for them too, just as if they were watching over her shoulder. It’s just the kind of care that you’d want for yourself, or for someone you love – thoughtful, gentle and personal.
Gemma’s care and attention to detail extends beyond the mortuary to all aspects of her work. Everything is carefully recorded, every detail noted, all personal belongings and jewellery labelled and checked and checked again. She knows how essential this is, to be certain that if, for some reason, somebody else had to step in and take over, all the tiniest details of each funeral are written down and easy to find.
Her premises are spacious and comfortable, not overly modern, but not old fashioned. When you walk into the reception area it’s uncluttered and sunlit, with a huge window from floor to ceiling. There’s a fish tank and a great big old desk, and a stunning chunk of labradorite, the beautiful blue-green gemstone with flashes of gold. (Gemma wears a labradorite pendant, and has a house full of them at home).
Ahead of you, a door leads to the large, modern and very tidy office and then on to a newly refurbished kitchen area and staff loo. To the left of the reception area is the room where funeral arrangements are made – two comfy sofas sit either side of a coffee table and there are blinds across the big window that can be closed to give privacy. An old fashioned dresser holds loads of the more recent cards from families Gemma has helped, every one of them personally addressed to her, and handwritten with notes about how much her involvement helped them.
Through a door on the other side of this room is a small room with various coffins in – families who want to see a coffin rather than just a photo in a brochure can look at and touch the various different styles. An unusual old clock sits on a high windowsill – it doesn’t work, but it was the first thing that Gemma bought when she decided she would open her own business. She and Dan saw it at a car boot sale, and Dan thought it looked like the kind of clock a funeral director would have, so they bought it!
Another doorway leads to a little area currently displaying memorial stones, including one that was responsible for breaking Gemma’s foot a few years ago when it fell on her. There are plans to move these outside, and put a small sofa here, as beyond this space is the chapel of rest where families can spend time with their relative, or, if they want to help prepare them for their funeral, where they can dress them.
Beyond the chapel is the mortuary area with fridge space for four people. It’s here that Gemma does all the dressing and preparation herself, and she has a big unit where she keeps make up, hair brushes etc. Looking after the people in her care means Gemma will do whatever families feel is needed, touching up roots, applying gel nails, trimming unwanted hair – all done while chatting quite naturally to the person who has died.
A rear door gives access to the yard where the hearse is kept in a garage and a ramp allows stretchers and coffins to be brought in and out with ease.
Entirely personal service, with Gemma 100% involved throughout from the moment the first call is made. She used to accompany her staff to collect people if they died at home, but realised that families generally don’t feel like talking to her at that point, so now she tells families the names of the people who will be coming, and then calls to reassure them once the person is safely arrived at Fernbank Road, meeting the family the following day. She trusts her staff implicitly, they are all hand-picked and many of them have worked for Gemma for years, so she knows they will be impeccable. She personally arranges and conducts each funeral, carrying out only one or two funerals each week. By the time the day of the funeral arrives, families will know Gemma really well and trust her completely.
Going above and beyond what families expect. As well as the extraordinarily high level of care for people who have died, their families are looked after completely too. Gemma will put together slideshows and orders of service if you want them, and she’ll help you think about what will make the funeral meaningful and relevant to you. It’s essential to Gemma that every single tiny detail of every funeral is absolutely right, and she will spend hours making sure that everything is done to the highest standard.
De-mystifying death. Gemma’s completely unpretentious, and her dedication is evident. She thinks creatively and intuitively – as an example, she has a fairy sitting in a plant pot in her arranging room. This fairy has a reputation among the local schoolchildren who pass the premises each day going to and from the school just up the road, because every week she’s sitting somewhere different. One week she’s in the plant pot, the next she’s on the other side of the room with her legs crossed, the following week she’s peeping over a memorial stone in the reception area, and so on. Gemma noticed some mothers complaining when she first opened her business and hurrying their children past the windows – now, children actively look in through the windows all the time, to see where the fairy is, and voila – the funeral directors is no longer the creepy place to hurry past.
- Your first call will be answered by Gemma, day or night, 365 days a year. If Gemma is busy with a funeral then you might speak to Debbie who works alongside her, but you won’t ever find yourself speaking to a call centre.
- Home visits – Yes of course, just ask. If you would rather not visit their premises to discuss funeral arrangements, Gemma will come to your home or meet you at a place of your choice.
- Same sex person to wash and dress? Normally Gemma does this for everyone in her care but if you want men to look after your relative then she will bring some of her trusted gentlemen in to do so.
- Embalming? Only if absolutely required, and this is very rare. Gemma is skilled at looking after people in her care and doesn’t feel embalming is necessary.
- Ethnic specialism? Happy to work with all faiths and communities, and experienced with Sikh and Hindu
- Home arranged funerals? Absolutely, this is no problem at all. Gemma is used to helping families who want to keep a relative at home, she can lend you an air conditioning unit if needed and will come and visit your relative several times daily to check on their condition if you want her to. If you want to provide your own coffin and transport and just need a bit of extra reassurance and advice, that’s fine, she’s happy to help as much as required.
- Local celebrants – Gemma will be able to suggest a celebrant for you who she knows personally and who she feels would be the right choice for you. If you’re not sure then she will suggest someone else. Gemma sits in on every ceremony to make sure everything runs smoothly, so she is able to see the calibre of each celebrant’s work.
- Vehicles: It’s important to Gemma that her cars are always immaculate, but not so much that she feels the need to buy a brand-new hearse (average price tag for which is well over £100,000(!). Her Mercedes hearse is always clean and polished, and she uses a smart Chrysler with blacked out windows for baby and children’s funerals, and also to collect people from their homes or from hospital.
- Website: Quite simple and functional. Gemma plans on updating the website in the future but for now it serves its purpose, giving an indication of costs and some background information and contact details. We’d like to see more about Gemma herself and her photo, so hope that she’ll take our advice.
- Client support: If you choose Gemma as your funeral director you will have her complete attention and support throughout all your dealing with her. Many former clients have become friends and continue to stay in contact with her, a testimony to the support they felt during a difficult time.
- Money matters: Excellent value for money. The personal service and attention you and your relative will receive is second to none, but Gemma’s prices are very reasonable. Currently she has decided not to have all of the prices on her website but she shows an example cost.
- Parking: Free parking directly outside on Fernbank Road, or at the back of the property in the yard.
If it’s personal service you are looking for, then you will do no better than A J Brooke Funeral Directors.
You can be certain that the person who has died will be cared for as well as you would look after them yourself, by the same person throughout the time they are here. Gemma will check on them daily, wash and dress them herself, talk to them as if they were just sleeping, and generally treat every person she is in charge of as carefully and kindly as she would her own mother or sister.
The immense losses that Gemma endured when she was young have shaped and inspired her, and she has done something extraordinary as a result. She has dedicated her life to doing everything she can to help others through their grief, to ensuring that families who choose her company to help them get the best, most personal service possible. We are delighted to include A J Brooke as one of the funeral directors recommended by the Good Funeral Guide.