“Give people a service above and beyond”

words: Stewart McRobert
Richard Putt

After a 42-year career which saw him arrange around 8,000 funerals – a number of which were very high-profile – and become the first non-family member to attain directorship at Levertons, you may have thought retiral would see Richard Putt taking it easy. However, when this business is in your blood…

“I started learning the trade in 1970, working with my dad who was branch manager at Francis Chappell in Camberwell and Peckham,” said Londoner Richard. “I spent three years with that firm, ending up as shop relief manager and covering the premises when others were out. I can still recall sitting there with a Calor Gas stove and an Agatha Christie novel for company.”

In 1973, having passed the diploma in funeral directing, he spotted a person wanted ad for Levertons. After a daunting Saturday morning interview with Basil, Ivor and Keith Leverton, he became one of the first non-family members to start arranging funerals for the company.

“I eventually lived over the shop for more than 22 years. We had a three bedroom flat, company car and were living rent free. However, I was on call every other night and every other weekend.”

Richard explained that it’s the practical element of organising funerals he enjoys. “You allow bereaved families to concentrate on the emotional side of things. Sometimes, it can involve putting your arms around people. You often get immediate job satisfaction – few other jobs match it.”

In 2003 came an unexpected development. Keith Leverton was looking to retire, leaving his brother Clive to run the business. He formed a new board inviting on his daughter, Pippa and Keith’s son, Andrew. “Much to my surprise, he also asked me,” said Richard. “It was a very proud moment.”

Levertons has gained a reputation for serving the great and the good – it has provided funeral arrangements for, among others, Diana, Princess of Wales and Baroness Margaret Thatcher. However, Richard believes the company’s success is down to its ability to change with the times.

“Around 25 years ago someone might call and ask to buy a coffin and be told, ‘Sorry, we don’t offer that service’. Now, Levertons will do as much or as little as you want.

“I remember a lady calling after her mum died. She thought she had to have a fancy coffin, big cars and so on, when all she wanted was to have her mum buried on a friend’s farm in Wiltshire. I told her we’d do whatever she wanted. In the end, she chose a coffin from our stock. My daughter Helen, who works with Levertons, helped her put her mum into it and the next day the family went off to the farm.”

Richard said that when he first began arranging funerals it would take 20 minutes. The family would do exactly as told, a minister would deliver a short homily, the bereaved would come out, look at the flowers and head to the pub, often baffled by what they’d just witnessed.

Now, things have changed. The service is more relevant to the person who has died. People have more control, music is as important as prayers and people choose everything from Elvis to Elgar. Different types of religion – or none at all – are catered for. “I think it’s great that people have much more power,” said Richard.

In 2015, after ‘retiring’ to Cornwall – “a beautiful place” – he soon found himself back in the swing.

“I’d always planned to carry on doing some work and am helping a local Independent. Since Christmas I’ve arranged eight or nine funerals.”

He concluded with some wise advice for younger professionals. “Listen to your families and ask questions to find out what they need. Remember, it’s not about making as much money as you can out of individuals. Give people a service above and beyond what they expect and in the long term you’ll reap the benefits.”

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