Juggling the joy of a new baby with the stress of drawing up a viable business plan and raising the money needed to make it happen was a massive challenge for Grace.
Two years on, however, the business is thriving, and she has no regrets about the chaotic 18 months before her dream of becoming an independent funeral director came true.
She admits it was a huge risk to take. Setting up on her own meant that Grace and her husband Lee had to plough all the money they had saved towards a house deposit into her business start-up as well as borrowing heavily to launch it on a sound footing.
“It was a crazy time, a whirlwind,” she recalls. “Even on the day we opened, in January 2017, I sat in my office for the first time, waiting for the telephone to ring, wondering if it was all going to work out.
“When the first family called to ask about my handling a funeral for them, it was such an emotional moment that I burst into tears after speaking to them.”
Grace ticked all the right boxes for making a success of her new venture, having gained a wealth of invaluable skills and professional expertise through the 15 years she worked with a large firm of funeral directors in Lewes.
It’s a career she embarked on as soon as she left school and which has already rewarded her with immense personal satisfaction.
“When I was in Year 9 at Uckfield Community College, I was very interested in forensic science, and it was suggested that I spend a week with Cooper and Son, the funeral directors, shadowing them.
“Something just clicked. It wasn’t the average kind of job people expected a young girl to go for, but it was everything I was looking for, and it has been my vocation since I was 15 or 16.
“So I decided not to plough myself into A-levels and instead to do an apprenticeship with Cooper and Son. I started at the bottom, making the tea, sweeping the floor, fitting coffins, preparing the deceased for the chapel.
“I stayed there for 15 years, and I’m very grateful to have had that experience. I met my husband, got married and had my little boy, Louis, and it was then I started thinking seriously that it was time to have my own business.
“I wanted the freedom to do things I like, which isn’t always possible in a bigger organisation. I did a business plan, and although we were using the money we’d saved for a house deposit and also had small loans from parents, we still needed more.
“I’ll never forget how petrified I was when I went to see the bank manager as I’d never done anything like that before. I was shaking. When he rang to tell me I could have the loan I needed, I was very emotional.
“We were opening in January, and at Christmas, I sent him an email to let him know that he makes a real difference to people’s lives.
“I talked to family and friends about what I was doing, and everyone was very encouraging and said it would be fine. But I think a lot of them didn’t realise how much is involved in the work of a funeral director. I was fortunate to have worked in Lewes for years; therefore I was known in the community, so I hoped that would make people aware they could trust me and have confidence in me.
“Lee was an absolute rock. He has a business of his own so understands what that involves and he knew how apprehensive I was. I can’t think of many husbands who would let their wives throw so much money at launching a new business, not knowing whether or not it would succeed.
“He knew how passionate I was about it, and we both felt very strongly about it. He did a lot of the painting and decorating in the office to get it ready for the launch so that we could hit the ground running.
“But until the doors open, you don’t know if it’s going to work out. Until the calls come in, you don’t know if you have done the right thing. It was a very surreal moment when we got the first call.”
Grace was determined from the start that the personal touch would be at the very heart of her business, giving clients the utmost in a standard of care, service and support to every individual or family who asks for her help.
When she first started training as a funeral director, it was very much male-dominated though nowadays there are many other females in the profession. Grace believes that in some ways, women have a slightly softer approach which many people appreciate at a tough and sensitive time.
“Of course, there are lovely male directors, but I feel that it can be slightly more natural for a woman to go into someone’s house to make arrangements. We probably feel more comfortable about suggesting taking a break for a cup of tea if things get very emotional.
“That’s why I’ve made my premises at Ringmer feel like a house. There’s nothing at all sad about it – I want people to come in and feel relaxed. It’s my second home, and I want it to feel the same to them.
“We do funerals of all kinds, a mixed bag ranging from modest to high-profile processions, from traditional to the more unique and unusual, and I get a real sense of what is right for most people as soon as they come in or I visit them, and to adapt to that. My role is to support them by doing all the legwork, offer any advice they need, but the choices are all down to them.
“A lot of people who have to arrange a funeral are in the younger age bracket so have never been in the position of experiencing death before therefore don’t have any idea of what is involved.
“Funerals have changed enormously in recent years, there’s no wrong or right nowadays, they can be very different and much more personal than they used to be and I feel it is vitally important to give the family what they want. It doesn’t have to be grand, it can be very modest and straightforward if they prefer, but little details can make all the difference – the order of service, lighting a candle, for instance, small things people would never have thought about.
“There is no one size fits all; every funeral I arrange is bespoke; whatever the family wants. So far, I’ve never been unable to achieve that, and the individual feedback I get is wonderful – relief and smiles that all has gone well.”
Grace says that with Lewes being such a diverse community, with so many artistic and creative people, she has been happy to smooth the path to some unusual and spectacular funerals.
“The bonfire funerals can be amazing, all the craziness of people dressed in their bonfire attire and fireworks going off quite a spectacle,” she says. “It’s so fitting that the day is devoted to remembering and celebrating something so beautiful in Lewes and meant so much to that person.
“Recently, we helped with a fantastic funeral for someone very creative who had lost her sister at an early age. Because her sister had been devoted to animals all her life, she managed to find photos of the animals she’d had over the years and painted them on the coffin.
“It was a beautiful work of art, and I don’t know how she managed to do it in the time. It made people smile and were right for the sister she had loved. Decorating the coffin can be a very cathartic experience, and I certainly encourage it.
“Celebrating hobbies is very popular – we did one for a young man who loved music and was a DJ. The sides of his coffin were covered with his favourite vinyl records
“I looked after the funeral of an elderly lady who did a lot of tapestries, so we covered the coffin with a lovely quilt she had made.
“Everything has to be led by the family, but you get the impression very quickly if they want something special and different, so if they mention a person’s hobby, I can give little hints to inspire them, to make it a fitting tribute to the person they have lost.”
Grace also advises people to look at all the options available to them, including ‘natural burial grounds’ such as the nearby Clayton Woods. She also suggests that rather than choosing the nearest local funeral director, it would be wise to look for one whose approach is what the family wants, no matter the location.
“I do a lot of funerals in Crowborough and Uckfield now,” she says. “I’ll travel to wherever I need to go if a family feels I am the right person for them.”
Grace loves her work and is glad that due to her very personal approach, she can help families and individuals through a tough and emotional time.
“For me it’s a lifestyle, fulfilling a lot of personal goals,” she says. “You have to be the right person for the job, but it can be very emotional for me as well as you put a lot of yourself into it. You learn to manage your emotions but some days can be quite draining, each one is very different, and sometimes the contrast is enormous when I get home after a day when I’ve put so much of myself into, and now I’m playing Peppa Pig with Louis, who is a bundle of energy and such fun.
“Not all my friends understand why sometimes I can’t to go out as something might have cropped up that I need to deal with, but my clients have to come first. And I have to look after myself and my business. Lee is my absolute rock – he always understands my job.
“You do learn to handle your emotions, but I think that in this kind of work, if you become numb to other people’s feelings and if you didn’t feel anything yourself, that would be the time to give up.
“For my point of view, being an independent funeral director is the best thing in the world, what I have always wanted. Nothing could be better than going to work in an office you have created and which is like a second home to you.” •