I experienced something in my first year in the funeral profession that I have never seen since, even though I am sure it must have occurred. It concerns the head of a travelling family who had died.
The period was very early 1978, it was a lovely spring day, and my colleagues and I were aware that we may experience something very unusual, but until it happened, we really didn’t know. Coulsdon is in the English county of Surrey, lots of houses, but also is in the countryside. The lanes are quite narrow, one the farms was owned by a family of travellers. They worked the farm, but had no houses, just barns for the livestock and to store. It really was a rural area, ideal for the large family who didn’t bother with the trappings of life, such as comforts we all take for granted nowadays. The family originated in Ireland, were lovely to deal with, a genuine pleasure to be of service to.
We went to the site to collect the gentleman, and also all the floral tributes. The service was to be held in church, so the hearse and four limousines reported early because of the number of flowers. It is not widely known that there are florists who specialise in providing their service for the travelling community, their work is intricate and specialised. These florists are private, they seldom advertise, only known to certain sections for major occasions. They are able to provide a large number of superb creations that are simply stunning. If the deceased had a passion for golf, for example, there would be a green, with hole, flag, and broken golf club, on a four foot square base. I have seen boxing rings with ropes, corners, a small timekeepers bell, and a referee with two pugilists.
I have also seen a recreation of a gypsy caravan, all in green flowers, on a wire base and frame. There is usually a week between the time they died and the funeral, so the florist and family have a week to work their craft. They work during the night, with a full order book. Of course, it is not just funerals, they also provide for weddings.
This particular funeral had many such creations, each had to be handled with extreme care, often with two or even three men to carry. Flat bed lorries were there to transport, after the cemetery chapel service which would be packed, at the graveside all flowers would be placed adjacent to the grave for closer inspection. Usually family members would attempt to outdo each other to show how much they had cared. When it was the patriarch of the family, then more show was commonplace. At the farm site it was a very relaxed atmosphere, with a lot of the men helping us load onto the lorries. The ladies and gentlemen were also consuming large amounts of alcohol, with youngsters taking a surreptitious nip.
It was a long service, with lusty singing, then we carried the coffin for interment. It was fortunate that the service was a long one, because we needed all that time to display all the tributes. All was completed by us with extreme care and dignity, correct prayers said, a handshake to the vicar with a large note inside, all mourners watched the funeral staff to ensure that they did everything right. We did. Because of the alcohol many men disappeared behind trees. At the graveside there was a low level fog created by the vast numbers of cigarettes being smoked by all.
But what made this occasion stand out was what happened back at the family site.
We were told to park the four limousines in the road, blocking the lane. We were not allowed to leave, but told to stand at the back and witness the last part of the farewell. He was an older gentleman, and had lived in a wooden traveller caravan all his life. His possessions were all in this work of art, which nowadays as a genuine relic would be worth in excess of six figures. Our ex-prime minister David Cameron bought a caravan for £25,000, placed it in his back yard, and sat in it to write his memoires.
They placed straw all around, lit it, and then stood back as the fire caught. Slowly, the smoke started, very quickly you could smell the burning, then at the bottom there was a small flame. The flicker grew, until it was consuming the lower part. Then the old, dried paint really caught, with the wood naturally combusting. From start to finish, until there was only a shell left, it took less than a quarter of an hour. No-one said anything, there was no singing, all stood there, transfixed, as a little piece of history disappeared in flames right in front of us.
It was a sight to see, a genuine hundred year old caravan being destroyed as a tribute to its late owner.
Never seen it since. Probably won’t again.