The old Queens Building

The old Queens Building

In the late 1980s I was working for the premier London funeral company in their overseas office. This meant that I was arranging repatriations to all over the world.

They had started their operations in the 1930s, when air travel became more accessible for more people who could afford a faster method of transport, but unfortunately fatalities were also commonplace, requiring the services of a funeral home. As Kenyons already had extensive London representation, were family owned, and instructed when necessary by the Royal Family, they were in an ideal position to become the foremost firm in their field.

Thirty years on, in 1984 I was senior in this office, an experienced operative, brought  in to conduct UK funerals, escort bodies overseas when necessary, and take Families round London and the UK to obtain relevant documentation. It was a varied job, no two days were ever the same, and I knew that I had found my professional niche. After a couple of years in this office, all my experience and tact were necessary with a family who came from Bahrein.

Bahrein Embassy in Belgrave Square

Bahrein Embassy in Belgrave Square

Two brothers were diplomats in the embassy, and their mother came to London for medical treatment. This was unsuccessful, so it was down to me to arrange for her repatriation back home. Diplomats are on a list held by the UK Foreign Office, so normal formalities are waived to ensure safe passage. This is a courtesy shared around the world, and placing on the list is strictly limited. One example of the diplomatic immunity is those on the list can’t be prosecuted for certain criminal activity, receiving parking tickets with immunity, never to be paid. But these two gentlemen wanted their mother to be added to the diplomatic list. Posthumously.

This just doesn’t happen, it was never going to happen, but these two gentlemen spent many hours attempting to make it occur. In the end, they gave up, so the next step was to arrange the temporary closure of their London luxury homes, laying off staff, and organising an aeroplane to take the coffin, their two families, and close retainers, making a number in the region of 40. This was not an unusual occurrence for me, we used to hire 747s quite frequently, but what made this arrangement stand out in my memory wasn’t just the fact that they wanted mother added to the list, it was that they could not find a plane to hire, because it was Farnborough Air Show.

Farnborough Air Show

Farnborough Air Show

After spending many hours on their first failure, they were becoming increasingly frustrated. But one of their contacts suggested that there could be one available from Swissair, and situated in Paris. They were onto this lead very fast, but the airline was insistent. Their plane was not for hire. But for the right price, it could be purchased. Negotiations were not protracted, a price was soon agreed, the sum of $13m was transferred, flight plan lodged, all arranged for the plane to land at 7pm that evening.

In those days, when you went to Heathrow Airport, you drove through the tunnel and on your left were terminals one and two, with three further round the bend. In front of the first two terminals was one for private jets, famous stars, Middle Eastern potentates, and executives of all backgrounds. I had been there many times, it was quite a normal occurrence for me to attend, be in charge of the transfer of the coffin from hearse to plane, then discreetly leave. But this was getting all the more interesting.

Swissair

Swissair

It was still daylight at 7pm, there were observation windows at both terminals so passengers could see parts of the concourse where planes were waiting. I was the man in charge, I had my experienced hearse driver next to me, we had about a dozen luxury cars following from the Embassy to airport. When the security gate was opened we chauffeured through to the waiting jumbo. The passenger steps were down, there was a conveyor for luggage direct into the hold. My two clients talked to me.

‘Where do you intend to place the coffin’

‘In the main part of the passenger cabin. We will have to take out three rows of seats, then place it on the floor, securing with straps.’

‘Fine, please do this.’

Me ‘what do you want me to do with the rows of seats, they are your property and go with the plane’

‘Throw them away.’

a tip

a tip

And that was it. Seats discarded, what did they matter, they could always have some more made. I organised the loading, all was secured, and then me, the hearse driver, and all other drivers had to stand in line, me at the front. The chef de household walked in front of each man, handing out a £50 note, but as the man in charge I received two. We were then dismissed.