Taking the long view
SAIFInsight meets three Independents with an amazing heritage to draw on as they face the future…
M Lucking & Sons
M Lucking & Sons was established in 1631 in Chelmsford, Essex, by carpenter William Lucking. The company, now run by William’s descendants Christine and her sister Jennifer, has retained its carpentry arm and is recognised as one of the oldest businesses in Chelmsford. SAIFInsight spoke to Christine to find out more…
“My sister and I run the company because my father didn’t have any sons, and we are a fully family business as we have Darren, Roy, Sarah and Calum, Roy’s son.
We don’t have an exact date for when the business began, but we have traced the family back to my great-great grandfather, who was William Lucking. He was in Little Waltham, the village just outside of Chelmsford, and he was the local carpenter and, like most funeral directing businesses, it started that way. As the village carpenter he would have made the coffins and these would then have been transported on a hand beir and walked to the churchyard for burial.
We then go back to the late 1800s when my grandparents bought land here in New London Road, Chelmsford, and they had a house and workshop built in about 1887 and we’ve been here ever since.
The detached Victorian house is on quite a bit of land with a long driveway to it and other buildings, so we have a good set up. Darren, my father’s second nephew, lives in the property and over the years, we’ve taken over some of the ground floor of the house and the rest of the business carries on in other buildings around it.
On the site we have our original workshop where Martin our resident master carpenter works – he’s been with us since he left school and he is now in his early 60s. Initially, he made coffins but that side of the business has gradually gone into bespoke joinery, and he now makes items for craftsman builders such as staircases, door frames and windows, and that’s more revenue for the company as well as a link to our roots.
The company name came about when my father lost his father, George Lucking, when he was just four years old. The M Lucking stands for Mary Lucking, and the sons were my father and Darren’s grandfather. When George died, Mary carried on the business, and in those days it would have been quite something for a woman to have owned a funeral business. Her two oldest sons helped her but at that time there probably wasn’t enough business to support everyone, so Darren’s grandfather worked for the Co-op funeral services in Chelmsford, and he ran that business until he retired.
My father, Mary’s youngest son Gus, took over from his mother when she died in 1964 and he didn’t change the name. At first he did it part-time as he carried on working for the builder in Chelmsford he was employed with at the time. He was doing the funeral arrangements in the evenings and at weekends, and they would allow him time off to conduct funerals, but he soon went into full time funeral directing. Gus was by then a master carpenter and joiner, so he introduced bespoke joinery alongside the funeral business.
I’ve only been heading it up for the past 11 years and I was working in local Government at first, so, like Dad, I would be at the day job all week, then working weekends on the administration, along with my sister.
We do promote our heritage, we’re proud of it, and we had new signage put up at the front of our premises two years ago which says how old we are. And we’ve been recognised by the Chelmsford Chamber of Commerce as being one of the oldest businesses in town. We also take great pride in the fact that some of the funerals are horsedrawn, and we still offer these. A lot of people think it’s travellers who have those types of funeral but that is not the case. We had a horsedrawn funeral for my father and other family members. In latter years we’ve come into the 20th century in terms of technology, which has been the biggest change. Roy’s son Calum entered the business just over two years ago and since then we’ve really moved forward with that. We had to modernise. You’ve got to keep up to date.
Two and a half years ago, we did major building work to add new offices and cloakroom facilities, and the original office has become a client room with soft furnishings, just like being at home – a nice area for people to come into.
We also took on some more premises for storage and car parking and, to be honest, if we hadn’t taken that on we would not have been able to cope in the pandemic situation.
It has been a tough two years, as I’m sure all funeral directors have found. Dealing with the families has been very stressful. But our motto is ‘let our family look after your family’ and we do get very good feedback which we pride ourselves on. Every funeral is individual and important to us.”
H Biffen & Sons Ltd
H Biffen & Sons Ltd was established in 1920 by Harry Biffen, who launched a taxi and limousine business in Bridgwater, Somerset. Now Harry’s grandson John, and great-grandaughter Sarah, run the funeral home and maintain Harry’s love of cars.
“My grandfather was a taxi proprietor and bought a hearse and limousine and became what they called at the time a carriage master to a funeral directors. A lot of the funeral directors were undertakers and did other work – they were vicars, carpenters or joiners – and some were just working in the back of their shops. When we were at the height of being carriage masters, we were providing 13 funeral directors with our vehicles. It was a small family business run by my father, my father’s brother, and granddad to start with. I came along when my father’s brother retired, a long time ago.
When Dignity started to buy up funeral directors in our area, there were fewer and fewer funeral directors, so we became an Independent in our own right in 1996. Now there’s just me and Sarah as directors of the company and we’re still in the same premises as we were a hundred years ago.
We ended up having a main hearse and a small hearse, and father was also buying and selling hearses – he’d buy them and do them up and sell them on.
I was always nothing to do with the business at first – I worked in the motor trade, employed by Ford for 22 years, and they put me where I am today. I earned a lot of money back in the ’80s – I’m earning a lot less now!
When I worked for British Leyland, I sold my very first car to a family, and by chance, the day we became funeral directors in our own right, I looked after the same family.
We have grown because we invest. Hearses and cars and limousines aren’t worth anything. Nobody wants a hearse unless it’s for banger racing, but we’ve kept them and we still use them.
When my grandfather lived in this area and sold the house, he kept the garden and there are 15 vehicles in one garage. If somebody was to ring up and say ‘Can you supply me a limo because mine’s broken down?’ we can help. Also, when they’ve just started up and they’ve got no capital to buy a hearse, we’re here to help them out.
The cars and hearses we have in our collection have value, but a car is only worth what someone would pay for it when they want to buy it, not what you want for it. I love them, though, and I got a good deal on insurance through SAIFInsure.
We have hearses and limousines in the Queen’s colours of claret red – a Daimler hearse and limousine – black Jaguars, black Daimlers, black over carlton grey Daimlers, and a black Rover 75S hearse – all British vehicles. We also have a Mercedes Vito closed hearse and removal vehicle because some Polish people in our community prefer a closed hearse.
We’ve been very fortunate and very successful in regards to being a funeral director because we’ve been here so long. We’ve been involved with things that go on in the town, too, helping people with different things, but we don’t like recognition of it.
You know, if a PA system in a church was needed, we’ve contributed to that, but if anybody asks me, I deny it. We don’t sponsor, we help. When the local netball club ran out of money to be able to rent the pitch they play on, we helped so they could carry on doing what they do.
My father was still driving at ninety years of age – in fact he went into hospital with breathing problems and they told him his heart was worn out because he never retired. He just carried on working. When it came to us looking at the business, my wife said what about Sarah? I said she was too young but that’s how it started. She came on the scene and she’s made a great start here. She does her own thing.”
Sarah: “The company has a bit of an ethos. Before you join, you have to make your own path and friends. So, dad set his life up and did his thing and made his friends and met people in different circumstances, but I ended up coming into the business at an earlier age than dad because granddad was getting old and mum got diagnosed with cancer. But you’ve got to live before you end up working like 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You are the ringmaster of everything. If you follow what’s going on in the ring, you should be doing the job and you’re in control when you want to be. That’s how things run smoothly.
Our ethos is clear: allow our family to care for yours.”
Christophers’ Family Funerals
Christophers’ Family Funerals was established in the Devon village of Bickington in 1846, and the family vocation has passed from father to son – and now son-in-law – for five generations. Tom Meek, who now runs the Independent, tells us the story…
“We were originally founded in 1846 by a man named Henry Christopher, who was a wheelwright, which was quite a traditional route into undertaking. That was passed down through the generations to Frederick Williams, my wife Caroline’s father, and now I run the company on the family’s behalf.
I met Caroline at university and I came down to stay with her and her family and the gravediggers were off that week, so her dad asked me to dig a grave for him and that’s how it started. In 2001, while we built a house in Devon, we lived with Caroline’s mum and dad for a while and Caroline said ‘Tom’s not helping, OK?’, but I think it was on our third or fourth night that there was a knock at the door and her dad was asking for help. After that I was helping with bearing, removals, stonemasonry… everything.
My father-in-law can remember the days when pitch tar was used in coffins and it would leak out on their clothes when they were taking the coffin into the crematorium, so times have changed. There are some traditions that we’ve carried on, though, particularly in terms of respecting the families. Each time we do a removal from a home or residential home we always make sure we leave the room exactly how we found it and make the bed.
We now live on the plot where Henry Herbert Christopher grew his vegetables – he was nicknamed Hedgehog because he was such a prickly character! – and we have built the business to include two new premises with a chapel of rest.
In 2007, we opened a shop on Wall Street, and then in 2012 we bought an old SouthWest Water pumping station which is now a mortuary and a chapel which seats up to 50 people. That allows us to hold services without the pressure of a 25-minute commute, which helps families.
A lot of families in the area come back to us, and we have all the records dating back to about the 1960s. We can look up people’s grandparents and get all of the details of the service, where the burial or cremation took place and all of the hymns that were sung, what the newspaper announcement said and where the wake was held. That can be reassuring for some families and they often use it as a starting point for how they want to remember their loved one.
The whole market has changed, though, because people are moving away. They are also shopping around online, so we’ve had to respond to that.
There’s a lot more expectation about what a funeral should be now. My father-in-law’s role was simpler – meet the family, set a date and time, get it in the newspaper, and order the flowers –and everthing was done well before the date. However, since COVID started, there’s been a lot more technology involved and that adds a lot more pressure for us on the day.
The amount of flowers at services has decreased too, and people are moving away from traditional Victorian funerals and wearing black – it has gone from a mourning to a celebration of people’s lives.
We’re all individuals, so we offer a price guide for traditional cremation, direct cremation, and an unattended cremation, allowing the family to come and visit their loved ones in the chapel of rest.
People often want to write a letter or postcard and place it in the coffin. They get comfort from that, and as we are part of the community, we want to look after them and for them to be able to respect their loved ones and mourn them in the way that they want. I think that’s very important.”Tags: Christophers' Family Funerals, coffins, funeral directors, H Biffen & Sons, heritage, independent, M Lucking & Sons, vehicles