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Work Life: Poppy Mardall, Funeral Director

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Poppy Mardall, 29, is the director of modern funeral company Poppy’s. She lives with her husband Chris, owner of Love Art London, in Hammersmith, London.

My background in art history means I’m very visual – I love rummaging through trinket shops, so our flat, which is painted red, purple and lime green, is full of random objects like Chinese teacups and a ceramic pineapple. I wake up at 6.30am, shower and have my first cup of builder’s tea to get going.

At Poppy’s we take a modern approach to funerals so although I always dress respectfully, I actively avoid wearing all black. If I’m visiting a family at home, I wear smart black jeans with a colourful top and jacket, which I buy from little boutiques when I travel. Chris also runs his business from home – his office is downstairs and mine is upstairs – so we chat about our plans for the day over a breakfast of fruit and yoghurt.

I decided to start my own funeral company after my father was diagnosed with cancer. I loved my job as deputy director at auction house Sotheby’s but wanted to do something to help people and his illness made me realise it was time to quit. I travelled to Ghana for some time out but contracted typhoid and during my six-month recovery, I realised that although death is a scary and taboo subject, I could help to make funerals a better experience.

At Poppy’s we provide a simple service by separating the cremation from the funeral ceremony. We return the ashes to the family, giving them the freedom to hold a funeral, memorial or celebration of life wherever, whenever and however they choose. When the family first contacts me, I visit them at home to talk through the paperwork and discuss their wishes. People always ask me if my job is distressing. It’s an unbelievably sad experience for the family but I don’t feel upset; it’s my job to help them, so I have to keep it together. I’m accepting of death, as I know we’re all going to experience it.

I don’t have a passion for death; I care about those left behind

I accompany the body from the hospital to our mortuary. The first time I saw a dead body, I was really scared but the experience made me realise it’s just a person whose heart has stopped beating and who is very much loved. I don’t have a passion for death; I care about helping the people left behind who are grieving.

Because Chris and I both work from home, we don’t have other colleagues to talk to, so it’s important for us to have lunch together – usually a bowl of soup at about 2pm. It takes up to a week to finalise the paperwork for a cremation, then I travel with the body to the crematorium. We don’t conduct a traditional funeral; there are no hearses or speeches and the family doesn’t usually attend, so I make sure that their wishes are honoured, such as placing a red rose on the coffin.

After the cremation, the ashes are returned to the family – people can be quite eccentric and use everything from Tupperware to elaborate urns but most people choose the dark green cardboard urn we provide. The family can then take the time to plan a meaningful ceremony and decide whether they want to keep, scatter or bury the ashes. People often think there are lots of rules involved but ashes can be scattered anywhere with the landowner’s permission.

Traditional funerals involving wooden coffins, limousines, embalming and undertakers mean that the average cost of dying in London is £8,020; our simplified approach means we only charge £1,750, so rather than spending money on things that don’t matter, it can go towards creating a more memorable service.

Running a start-up business means I work long hours, so my day finishes anywhere between 6pm and 10pm. Chris and I try to go for a walk each night along the river to unwind, then he cooks dinner. He’s a great cook, so will make something like chicken stuffed with mozzarella wrapped in Parma ham for dinner. We go to bed at 11pm and Chris reads me the clues from Saturday’s Times crossword but by three across I’m always fast asleep.”

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