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Lifting the lid on work of a funeral director who's gone back to the future

By This is Exeter  |  Posted: July 23, 2009

  • Ryan leads the first funeral procession with a horse-drawn hearse seen in Tiverton for 80 years in 1998

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THE word "enjoy" isn't one you would think a funeral director would associate with his job, but it is used by Ryan Squires to dispel one of the most common myths about dealing with the dead.

"It's like any job, profession or vocation: You should always enjoy whatever you do and I do enjoy what I do," insisted Ryan, the owner of Tiverton's longest established funeral directors, Walter H Squires and Son.

"Lots of people say to me, 'I don't know how you can do what you do' or ask how I cope with being around people that have died all day or people who are grieving.

"Most of our day is actually spent with the living and finding out what they want, talking them through the options, letting them get things off their chest or almost being a bit of a confidant.

"A lot of people also assume funeral directing is a very quiet, sedate, serene and easy occupation. The funeral service is serene and dignified, but behind the scenes we have to run around like the proverbial headless chicken.

"If people are organising a wedding they have the service, church, cars, vicar, hymns, flowers, reception and so on to arrange in over 12 months or more.

"We do that on a regular basis for funerals but in less than a week and usually for five or six families at a time, along with all the things that go with running a business."

Other aspects of the job that might come as a surprise are the long hours and the travel demands — including, in Ryan's case, funerals as far afield as Lancashire, Ireland and even Majorca.

Luckily, his extremely understanding wife, Melanie, was herself a funeral director in Taunton before joining the family firm.

It is not unusual for the 35-year-old to clock in at 7am and work right through to 1am — and 22-hour shifts are not unheard of ahead of a weekend away. Ryan has also been known to cancel breaks simply because he could not face letting down a grieving family.

It is the same philosophy that has been passed down to him by his father Peter, and grandfather Walter, who founded the business 75 years ago.

Ryan took over the family firm at the age of only 23 when his father died of a heart attack aged 58. By then he had worked alongside his father for eight years straight from leaving school, but it was a hard act to follow.

"When my dad died, mum always let me think I was in charge but kept her eye on me to make sure I was not doing something wrong," said Ryan.

"Some people worried I would try and take what is a very traditional profession steeped in history, protocol and routine and suddenly try to catapult it into the 20th century."

The reality is Ryan has done the opposite and has brought back some old traditions like adopting Victorian funeral attire, including wearing a top hat and carrying a silver cane, and having the funeral director walk in front of the hearse.

Ryan said: "At the time lots of people laughed at me but it was something I believed in and now a lot of other funeral directors are doing it. Although we are very traditional in our everyday approach we will do whatever people want."

One of the most momentous changes in the entire 76-year history of the business took place last year when a second premises was opened in Cullompton.

The original launch date was December 20, 2007 — a date very close to Ryan's heart as it marked 10 years since his father's death.

Unfortunately the complexity of the project made this impossible, but the expansion still represented a fitting tribute to Ryan's father and grandfather.

Recalling how the business began, Ryan said: "My grandfather was a wheelwright, carpenter, builder and joiner. In 1933 he added funeral director to his list of skills as he could make coffins and would have been able to call upon other local tradesmen to be pallbearers.

"He was one of about a dozen others in the area like the Thorne brothers who were ironmongers. We were still carpenters and joiners, as well as funeral directors, when I joined in 1989.

"A lot of people assume I don't have any memories of my grandad but I was 11 when he died. One of my earliest memories of him is the school holidays when he was still in charge of the company. He didn't have a business premises so they had a parlour in the front room of their house where people sat and made arrangements or where the pallbearers congregated.

"My father's first involvement in the business, from what I remember him telling me, was at the age of eight or nine assisting my grandfather in the workshop making coffins and laying out the deceased.

"It was not an experience he looked back on with any fondness at all. As a young boy, I don't think he was happy doing it but he was doing what his father asked him to."

Ryan's own memories of growing up among a family of funeral directors are far happier.

He recalled: "On a few occasions from the age of four, my dad would come home and say, 'Do you want to come for a ride boy?' He would tell me not to worry about what was in the back of the car and to keep my eyes looking out front.

"I would have a great time as I was out with my dad. It was only until I gave it some thought years later I realised he would have been dealing with a sudden death and taking a body to the hospital for a post mortem.

"To a degree, it was my dad getting me used to what we do. As little bits started to make sense his hope was I would have no fear of what we do.

"He taught me when someone has passed away they can't harm you so you should never fear the dead.

"I remember other things like at Christmas when we all sat down for dinner then all of a sudden the phone would go and a few minutes later my dad would make his apologies to us and leave. I didn't give it a second thought but then as I got older I realised it was because someone had passed away.

"Most funeral directors say they are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but often at 5pm their telephone gets switched over to a call centre and they will take the information and then await a response.

"But that's not the way we work. We are always there at the end of the phone and will be with someone as soon as possible. That's why our business is well thought of. We are the most widely used funeral directors in Tiverton and that's because people appreciate what we do.

"We do what we do because we love what we do and like helping people.

"We see people at the worst time in their lives and if they say afterward we helped them it's the most wonderful feeling in the world."

What Ryan can also offer is a sympathetic ear, having lost his grandparents and both parents. Incredibly he found the courage to not only arrange but conduct his mother's funeral service in 2004 as per her wishes.

Ryan admitted: "It was probably one of the hardest days of my life, but professionally it was one of my proudest."

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