In our continuing series on 'church' firms, Joanna Moorhead visits A France and Son, undertakers to cardinals and others
AFTER 48 years in the funeral business, you'd think death might have lost its sting for Bernard France. But not so: indeed, he is convinced that an undertaker who loses his sensitivity to the sad facts of mortality sounds, in effect, the death knell of his firm.
It is, says Mr France, absolutely essential to be genuinely concerned for bereaved relatives. "It's no good pretending to care if you don't," he explains. "People can see through that. You have to really feel for them."
A France and Son has a reputation for genuinely caring which stretches back to the eighteenth century. Then, as now, the company operated from the heart of the nation's capital, where it soon established itself as the Top People's funeral service.
Among the long list of notables dispatched by France's were Nelson, whose mahogany coffin was described by the Sunday Reporter as having 10,000 gilt nails for ornamentation, and Pitt the Younger.
A few years later, in 1812, the then proprieter William France teamed up with one Mr Ranting: the following year, in a report on the funeral of the Duchess of Brunswick, the British Press issued the company with the following accolade: "the greatest credit is due to Messrs France and Banting, the Undertakers, for their great regularity in conducting this funeral — not a single omission of any kind; and it is worthy of remark, that the house of France and Co, has conducted all the Royal Funerals for the last 100 years . . .
The partnership of France and Banting lasted into the 1820s, with the firm ove arrangements for the funeral of King George III, but thereafter Mr Banting decided to go his own way. The present Mr France is not sure what became of the family of his ancestor's one-time partner, although Mr Banting himself did manage to secure immortality, at least in the pages of the Oxford Dictionary, by becoming the first person hi the country to
lose weight on a medicallysupervised diet. (Banding: treatment of obesity by abstinence from sugar, starch and fat.")
There were no more Royal funerals for the Frances after the 1820s, although the company continued to be hired for notable funerals. In 1922 Albert France, the current managing director's father, organised music hall star Marie Lloyd's, an event which drew many hundreds of her fans who watched the cortege, laden with flowers, pass by.
It was in this century, too, that the firm established itself as the leading undertakers for Catholic church dignitaries, and in recent years scores of priests and nuns, tens of archbishops and bishops, and even two cardinals (Godfrey and Heenan) have been buried by them. The company is well-versed in the ecclesiastical protocol and etiquette which surrounds such events, not to mention the more intimate details (priests are buried in mass vestments, reveals Mr France, and bishops go out in fully robed splendour).
France's is not, though, just a funeral service for the great and good: the company deals very much with ordinary people too, and has particularly close links with the Italian community in London and beyond.
This, in turn, has led to the development of a transportation service which arranges for
• • I • • • . k to their
home towns and villages in Italy. The process is a complicated one, requiring compliance with strict rules: corpses must be placed in metallic-lined caskets of specific thickness.
Italy is not the only destination France's can cope with: Ireland is another, and the company has flown bodies as far as Australia. And they will deal too, of course, with bringing loved ones back when they die abroad.
Whatever the circumstances of the deceased's demise, you can always rely on Bernard France ("Bunny" to his friends) for a sympathetic hearing. Ever solicitious, Mr France is the soul of discretion, quietly spoken, and guarded with his words. Basically, he points out, it's not difficult to upset the recentlybereaved with an ill-chosen word here, an inappropriate phrase there.
Not that you'll find Mr France, after all his years of experience, falling into that trap: every sentence he utters seems to be considered from every angle before being finally released to the listener.
There's plenty to be sensitive about, too, in the world of funeral directing. Shocked, often distraught relatives, who have sometimes lost spouses, parents or children who, with no warning at all, are suddenly faced with the horrendous practical decisions which inevitably accompany a funeral. It is not difficult to see that it must take a special kind of skill to be able to ask a grieving widow whose husband was alive just a few hours ago whether she wants his body embalming, and whether she would like to see him again.
Mr France has seen a lot of changes in the funeral business over the years. The church, he says. has been responsible for many of them: since Vatican II, its attitude is much more sensitive to the needs of bereaved people.
But secular society too has changed the face of funeral directing. It's drug overdose victims who are responsible for perhaps the saddest side of Mr France's work. "1 wish," he says with feeling, "that it was possible for more people to see the results of this terrible thing." Many are young people, some still in their teens: their bodies, often recovered from run-down bedsits, the tragic legacy of their wasted lives.
Yes, says Mr France, there's no doubt that his job has taken its toll on him. His Catholic faith, he says, carries him through, but it's been difficult at times.