When funerals are the family business

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Tracie Beardsley meets a fourth-generation funeral director and discovers what it’s like to have a job that can be a conversation starter – or fast finisher!

Formal attire isn’t always wanted – Richard has been requested to dress down in shorts and a t-shirt – All images: Courtenay Hitchcock

In 1897, in the small village of Broadwindsor, carpenters and gatemakers Arthur and Ernie Wakely turned their skills to making coffins.
Arthur’s son Jack helped his father and uncle in the family business and, with an entrepreneurial eye, he purchased a small funeral business in Bridport. Fast forward more than 120 years and that funeral business has burgeoned into 14 offices covering an area from Sidmouth to Wincanton.
Jack’s grandson, Richard Wakely, is the fourth-generation funeral director to join A. J. Wakely & Sons. Richard says: ‘It wasn’t my plan to come into the family business. My dad, Clive, a director in the firm, never pushed me or my three sisters. It wasn’t like TV’s Succession! Dad wanted it to be a natural progression. This is more of a vocation than an actual job. You’ve got to want to do it.’

Richard Wakely, the fourth generation funeral director. Image: Courtenay Hitchcock


After leaving school, Richard worked in the Philippines for the charity Mercy in Action. ‘That experience was life-changing for me,’ he says. ‘I grew up so much in three years.’
Working in the charity’s homes for vulnerable children in the Philippines, Richard ran a summer programme for street kids and a drop-in centre for orphans. ‘We’d feed them and give them a basic education.’
A keen sportsman, Richard spent time going into the community and playing basketball with the kids. This success led him to run an after-school programme as a full-time job. ‘A lot of the kids had no electricity in the evening and were doing their homework by candlelight. Opening the day centre at night gave them a safe space to study.’

Richard Wakely outside the Sherborne office
All images: Courtenay Hitchcock

We’ll find a way
Returning home, a casual chat while walking along the beach with his dad led to him joining the family business aged 21. Richard began learning the ropes as a general employee. He worked on the fixtures and fittings of coffins, having inherited his great grandfathers’ craft skills, and he shadowed experienced funeral director Matthew Paterson.
Richard juggled working with studying for his funeral director’s diploma. ‘Incredibly, you don’t legally need any qualifications to be a funeral director. It’s scary to think anyone can set up – without the right facilities, knowledge, or empathy that this work requires. Hopefully regulations will be coming in soon.’
After nine years, Richard now runs two of the Wakely offices. ‘Our motto is: “we will say yes and then work out how to do it”!
If a family wants it done and it’s legal, we’ll find a way.’
This includes unusual requests – Richard researched if a lady could keep her husband’s skeleton hanging in her office (she couldn’t).
He’s also been asked to dress down in shorts and a t-shirt rather than the usual funeral attire of tailcoated suit.
‘The taboo of talking about death has changed. People are keener to organise their own funeral and take the burden off loved ones. People want a personal touch. We now have a Land Rover Defender converted into a hearse for funerals on private land. Sometimes it’s just in a field with hay bales for the mourners.’
What is the reaction when Richard says what he does for a living? ‘I always say it’s either a conversation starter or finisher. Some people are surprised and hesitant, not wanting to know more. Others ask questions – lots of them!’

‘We will say yes and then work out how to do it – if a family wants it done and it’s legal, we’ll find a way.’
A. J. Wakely & Sons’ Landy hearse

Tough days
Richard’s faith helps him handle the emotions of dealing with death every day. ‘Praying through things really helps. My wife Emily is also a fantastic support. And as soon as I walk through the door, I’m bowled over by two young children and a baby. Work goes to one side for family time and that helps a lot.’
Organising a funeral for a baby or child is the toughest part of his job. ‘You feel for the parents.
‘Also, I’m always struck by non-attended funerals, where the deceased has outlived all friends and relations so there are no mourners. You become the congregation, and when you hear about their incredible lives, it’s very moving. I remember one chap who had been a spy gathering intel during the Second World War. We’re coming to the end of that generation. Such heroic stories will be buried forever – I’m very privileged to hear some of them.’

David, Simon, Clive and Jack Wakely at the opening of the Sherborne office in 1999

Quick fire questions:

Top dinner party guests?
My rugby heroes, Jonny Wilkinson and Dan Carter. Jesus would be cool … and my great grandfather, so I could thank him for starting the business!

Book by your bedside?
Imagine Heaven by John Burke

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