Funeral Directors Category: South East England
Frances Alcock. Frances worked as a nurse in the NHS for over 30 years in various roles; in the community as a District Nursing Sister, as a Nurse Practitioner, a Multiple Sclerosis Specialist Nurse and in Oncology. With a BSC in Health Studies, it is clear she explored all many different aspects of nursing, and the best qualities of a nurse are evident when you meet her.
Frances is instantly likeable, unfazed by anything, practical, kind and thoughtful. She really listens too, not just to what is being said but to what isn’t, and her experience and background means she is able to really ‘get’ people quickly, tuning in to feelings and emotions. She’s very much a people person, with great natural skills and an easy, comfortable manner that puts you at ease straight away.
The transition from experienced nurse to a funeral director is, when you think about it, a very logical one, but it’s a path that very few have taken. Frances is a pioneer in that she realised that the skills she had were completely transferable, that caring for patients and their families as a nurse was very similar to caring for people when they have died and the families they have left behind. And this realisation began to take shape when she went to the funeral of her beloved uncle in October 2013.
It wasn’t a good send off for Don; during the eulogy the officiant referred to him as ‘Bob’. There was reference to a cruise that he had been on during his life (he hadn’t). Leaving the ceremony, rather than feeling that her uncle had been given the best possible service, Frances’s overriding thought was ‘I could do better than that’. But instead of simply letting that thought go and accepting the funeral as ‘just the way it was’, Frances was inspired to find out more about the funeral business.
Typically, she did this thoroughly. She read a lot, she spent longs hours doing research, she set about finding people who were working in a way that she liked and meeting them, she visited lots of funeral homes and wrote a business plan. She found a training course and qualified as a funeral celebrant, and embarked on a six month Inspiring Speakers programme operated by Ginger Public Speaking (“The best money I ever spent!”) from which she graduated at an advanced level.
A supportive funeral director nearby willingly shared his expertise, and she came across various helpful funeral directors who were happy to let her spend time shadowing them and answering her questions. It all helped build her understanding of how she wanted to become involved in the world of funerals.
She never intended just to be a funeral celebrant, as she likes and wanted to be more hands on. She wanted people to realise they have more choice and offers a different approach to the local funeral companies that are very traditional. There is nothing wrong with traditional funerals Frances is keen to emphasise and OPALS have assisted with these and are very happy to support families if that is what is right for them. She however wants to offer a more personal approach as she believes conventional funeral practice does not always provide the scope for families to be as deeply and personally involved as they would like or need.
Opals are the birthstone for October, the month in which Don had been born and the one in which he died. October figures a lot in the story of Opals Funerals! The word opal derives from the Greek ‘Opallos’, which means ‘to see a change (of colour)’ – all so fitting for the change that Frances had been inspired to make. And in the same month, (October again) her Aunt Nancy, Don’s wife, died, and Frances was able to carry out the funeral service herself, something she looks back on with great pride.
Opals Funerals grew gradually; Frances intuitively knew that she needed to go slowly and not overstretch herself. She visited clients at home, hired mortuary facilities from other funeral directors, and hired people to help her when she needed them. She kept her overheads low, and began to build her business, investing in a great website and looking after each family who engaged her in such a way that the company’s reputation began to spread. As time went by, it was clear that her approach was meeting a need, and she started looking for premises of her own.
By October 2016 she had found somewhere that was just right, in Hedgerley, close to her home. A former beauty salon, in a tranquil location on a quiet road overlooking a green, the building didn’t need much to be done to it in order for it to be the way Frances wanted; it had wooden floors and downlights throughout, a light filled reception area and various smaller rooms which provided perfect spaces for the various things she needed – somewhere to sit with clients to discuss arrangements, somewhere where people could have privacy when spending time with the person who has died, room for a mortuary and refrigeration, a kitchen and a bathroom, a door at the back and some parking spaces in the car park at the rear – everything was there ready for her.
With the help of friends, Frances made the few adjustments that were needed, and 1 Hedgerley Hill was tastefully decorated and furnished and ready to receive guests in March 2017.
When you enter, you step into the reception area with natural light coming in through the large windows. To one side is Frances’s desk and a low unit for storage, while above the desk a shelf holds five candles with the letters OPALS, a clock and an elephant. There’s another elephant on the bookshelf in the opposite corner, with a matching shelf with wooden letters spelling out LOVE and a photo of Uncle Don and Aunt Nancy.
A small contemporary table and chairs offers somewhere to sit for anyone dropping in for a chat, while through a doorway to the right is the smaller room where you can sit in more privacy. There’s another table in here, and a sofa. The colour scheme is a pale green, reminiscent of the most beautiful opals, with contrasting cream walls – it’s a really attractive, comfortable welcome.
Going through the central doorway opposite the entrance door, there is a room to your left which is where you can come and spend time with the person who has died. Frances calls this the Family Room, it’s called simply what it is, a room where families can be together after one of them has died. The room itself is simple and contemporarily decorated, with a screen in front of a small hand basin. (Another screen is used to hide Frances’s desk if she is with clients making funeral arrangements – she feels that looking out onto a busy desk of papers isn’t what people need when they’re talking about something so important, so she just brings out the screen and places it across.)
Opposite the Family Room is the door leading to the well-appointed modern mortuary, with refrigeration spaces for three people. The room itself is cool and well equipped, and people are welcome to see it if they want to know whereabouts their relative will be cared for (just make an appointment with Frances to ensure that the privacy of other people’s relatives in her care is maintained).
The premises are perfect, and have helped Opals Funerals have a home. It’s still a one person business though, so when she’s out on funerals or collecting people who have died, the premises will be closed – she advises that you telephone first to make an appointment.
Away from her new career, Frances continues to give back to society in other ways. She volunteers regularly at Crisis at Christmas, marshals the London Marathon, is on the committee for the Hedgerley Memorial Hall and helps with the social functions. She enjoys spending time outdoors and is a big fan of Parkrun that takes place every Saturday morning at Black Park, she also enjoys cycling and walking. Her two sons are young adults and she enjoys spending time with them and with her friends, going to the theatre and cinema and generally keeping a good work / life balance.
For Frances, creating Opals Funerals isn’t just about having a business, it’s about getting people to have the conversation about death and dying. She is passionate about getting it right for clients and starts with a blank piece of paper every time, without any expectations.
She sees her role as being supportive and as flexible as each client needs, aiming every time to do ‘what is right for you’. She offers caring, unique, modern or traditional, affordable, family led funerals, and prides herself on being completely transparent and honest.
Frances’s recognition that by encouraging clients to get involved and create the funeral that works for them, the experience is so much richer and more fulfilling for them than it perhaps would have been in a more passive role.
Her determination to be completely open and transparent in every aspect is evident from first contact, whether this is via her website or by speaking with her in person. And her passion for spreading the word that a different approach to funerals is not just possible, but perfectly acceptable, and in most cases, desirable. She’s taken to public speaking like a duck to water after completing her training, and often gives talks to groups locally.
It is rare to find someone who is capable of carrying out the practical aspects of funeral arranging and directing and also of taking on the role of funeral celebrant.
The skills needed are quite different, and most people are stronger in one role or the other, but Frances has garnered all of her experience, innate abilities and training and is able to fulfil both aspects with equal ease. Most clients realise that she is a trained funeral celebrant from reading the information on her website, and many ask her directly to lead the funeral ceremony while making the funeral arrangements. It makes sense from the client’s perspective – the conversations that form part of arranging the funeral flow seamlessly into those that help structure the ceremony.
And to be honest, because of Frances’s approach of empowering families to be as involved as they feel they can be in everything, often she finds that she simply is needed to steer the proceedings, maybe introducing the various speakers or music that the family has chosen, but very much helping them to lead the ceremony themselves. She is always supportive though, and will lead the service if required or take over from family if necessary.
- Your first call will be answered Frances. Occasionally one of her trusted self-employed colleagues might step in, almost always it will be Frances you speak to.
- Home visits – yes absolutely. Especially for older or frail clients who might find a visit easier than travelling to the premises, but Frances finds many clients prefer to have her come to them.
- Same sex person to wash and dress? If needed.
- Embalming? In Frances’s opinion? “Totally unnecessary most of the time. I have only had one person embalmed since opening Opals”.
- Ethnic specialism? Happy to serve clients from all cultures and ethnicities. She recently helped a Hindu family and is more than happy to work with all cultures and faiths.
- Home arranged funerals – Yes absolutely, and something Frances has done on a number of occasions.
- Local celebrants – Happy to recommend local celebrants and equally happy to carry out this role for you, whichever works better for each client.
- Vehicles– The main Opals Funerals vehicle is a smart Galaxy, but if you want for traditional formal vehicles Frances can hire these for you for an additional fee.
- Website– Really good, modern and informative website that clearly reflects the values, style and quality of Opals Funerals. All prices online.
- Client support – Exceptionally good throughout your contact with Opals. (As you might expect from someone with Frances’s background and approach to her work).
- Money matters – Really clear and straightforward pricing information on the website, showing a basic price including all the necessary components and then outlining optional extras and the costs involved. Full payment is usually required before the funeral.
- Parking–plenty of space to park outside
What Frances has created here is exactly the kind of funeral company that deserves to be recommended by the Good Funeral Guide.
When we visited her as part of the GFG accreditation process, we ended up overstaying by two hours as we looked through the many orders of service from funerals she has facilitated over the last four years and talked about each one – a fascinating and often moving reflection on her work, not least because the little booklets were all so different (Frances encourages families to design their own rather than using standard funeral director templates, and the results are immensely personal).
The company strapline is ‘Family led funerals’ and this is just what we most like to see. As Frances says, doing this work “is very similar to nursing in many ways, caring for people when they need it most.”
And this care is appreciated by everyone who chooses Opals Funerals. Here’s a typical example of one of the testimonials previous clients have left for her;
“Frances took time to understand our family and what would work for us and helped us put together a perfect service for my father.
We could not have asked for it to be any better, as we concentrated on the content, Frances sorted out all the details behind the scenes in a seamless manner.
I would highly recommend her.”