0 In Cast of Creatives

Wedding Industry Mental Health and Death with David Billington from Full Circle Funerals

James Pearson
Welcome back to Cast of Creatives, the series dedicated to exploring creative work and creative thinking, and how this supports mental health and well being. So I’m James Pearson. I’m the founder of Wedding Industry Mental Health and Wedding Espresso. I have the extreme delight today to be joined by David Billington from Full Circle Funerals. David, how are you, my friend?

David Billington
I’m doing very well. James, thank you very much for inviting me on today. Appreciate it.

James Pearson
Gosh, it’s such a pleasure. I mean, I’m just going to become fully congruent with everybody right now and just say that the subject of death is a hard one for me. Now, when I first discovered Full Circle Funerals, I was actually very kindly invited over to your premises to explore what you offered so many years ago now, was it six years? At least banging on the door! Yes, it’s been a long time and I must admit that at the time, I was really, really surprised and moved by what you were trying to accomplish, and have now successfully accomplished, which is great to see in that space. So given that it is my very, very deeply rooted belief that good mental health has its roots in understanding, comprehension and proper management, and death is probably the hardest topic of any topic to tackle, it hits people the hardest, in the most unexpected of ways, I’m really, really interested to have you share with everybody a little bit about your approach, and how it differs from the norm. So would you like to share a little bit of that with us now?

David Billington
Yes. So first and foremost, we are a service that is a care provider. So I actually come from a mental health background myself. I used to work as a care manager for a number of years before we started Full Circle, and I used to support people that have learning disabilities of various different types. We’ve kind of taken some of the skill set that we have within that setting and moved it within the funeral industry. So we believe that every family that comes into to see us deserves to have a bespoke plan made for them. Essentially, it shouldn’t be this kind of templated approach where everyone gets exactly the same service. And so the way that we do that is kind of multiple ways.

Sometimes it could be quite creative methods, and it might be encouraging that family to explore different things. Like for example, flower arranging, it doesn’t have to be something that you buy from a florist, it could be something that’s taken from your own garden or it could be taken from the garden of the person that’s died, especially if horticulture was really important to them. And then that kind of creative process of creating flowers for the funeral could be done by the family, it could be done by friends. There’s some people that have chosen to get cardboard coffins and use them as a bit of an artistic base. We’ve had quite a few families come in and do that as a bit of a therapeutic session. And then it’s interesting to watch because when people first come in, they always look absolutely terrified because no one’s ever done anything like this before, and it’s a really big thing for people to ask. But normally after about a couple of minutes, as soon as people start to talk and sort of express ideas as to what they want to do, it always ends with people leaving with a smile on their face. And there’s lots of kind of laughter and jokes that are happening, they’re essentially sharing stories about the person that’s died. So there’s those types of creative methods. They’re just a couple of examples.

Sometimes it might be something a bit more formalised in terms of how we tailor our approach to support that family. So it might be something like, we’re not counsellors, because we don’t have that those skills. So we are in contact with lots of other organisations all across Yorkshire and some national ones as well. We feel that if it’s appropriate, we will get in contact with those organisations and essentially signpost the family to them, because something on top of that more formalised kind of one to one counselling session, some people respond better to group dynamics where they can just discuss things with other people. Another method that we have started in the past couple of years, to kind of tailor our approach as well, is we have a free online monthly bereavement support group. And again this is not anything to do with us being counsellors, we’ve just essentially created a safe space for those who are dealing with any sorts of issues surrounding bereavement to just share their thoughts, opinions and experiences in a safe place with other people having something similar going on at that point in time.

James Pearson
Hmm, yes, that’s really, really interesting. I think the traditional view doesn’t necessarily include the sense of a celebration of life, which is the feeling that I get most coming off your work. That we’re really looking to celebrate that person’s life as opposed to almost celebrating the mourning of the loss, which is a more sort of traditional way of looking at it. And I came across a lyric which really, really stuck with me, and I’ve never been able to shake it. And that was that “somewhere my heart beats in silence”, and my feelings around this are that every person that we come into contact in our lives, especially oou nearest and dearest, leave a mark, like some sort of trace with us. And I love that concept of a heart beating in silence, like you can no longer really experience that person, but you can certainly experience the legacy, and the feelings that they’ve left inside you. I thought that was a really nice way of putting it.

David Billington
That’s lovely. And that really fits with a theory that we believe in quite strongly, which is called continuing bonds theory. Continuing bonds theory essentially says that when someone dies, our relationship with them doesn’t end at that point, but slowly changes over time. So the bonds can remain just as strong. And the way that you can kind of create that bond and keep it going is by adding in maybe activities or rituals to kind of help establish and maintain these bonds over time. So some people have done things like creating a special ritual on the anniversary of the person’s death. Or it might be on their birthday, that they go and do something very specific. Or it could be that they already had some sort of tradition in place, maybe something around Christmas time, and they just alter that slightly. So we’ve still got that bond that continues with that person, but it’s just in a different format. And these types of exercises work quite well with children as well. So we’ve done a number of things over the years to kind of help children get a little bit more understanding around death but not have a really negative connotations associated. Okay, yeah. And so one of the activities that’s been quite popular, has been creating a memory jar, really simple. All you need is some form of receptacle, so like a glass jar will do and then let’s say it’s the grandmother of the child has died. If the grandma had a favourite place, or a favourite walk, go to that place, collect some pebbles and stones from that area. And then each time you put one of those stones into the memory jar, either you can paint it a different colour, make a marking on it, just represent it in some way. So you will associate it with a positive memory of that person. And eventually you will fill up that jar with these kind of physical objects from a place that you know that that person really liked. And you will have this jar full of positive memories. And it’s a really simple idea, but lots of people seem to really resonate with it. And that’s just one of quite a few that we’ve encouraged people to explore. And some of these ideas we’ve sort of come across ourselves are from families that have made them up themselves as well.

James Pearson
That’s nice!

David Billington
There’s just so much creativity that can be put into this. But maintaining those bonds, I think is a really important part of just establishing I suppose a good relationship with death and grieving in general.

James Pearson
Hmm, yes, there’s a lot of stuff there that I’d like to unpack actually. Topping it all off, really, I suppose with a “good relationship with death”. That’s a very interesting phrase, and I want to come back to that. But first and foremost, the wedding industry, right. We have these vows “till death do us part”. Everyone will be familiar with these. What is your take on that? I’d be very interested to hear.

David Billington
In what sense?

James Pearson
Sure! In the context of what we’ve just been discussing. Do you think that that line, that phrase, fully represents people’s experience? That’s a heavy question, David. I’m sorry.

David Billington
No, I’m just considering my response to it. I mean, it depends what context people take it in because obviously people have multiple weddings in a life time. But you only ever have one funeral. And I think that till death do us part, I think a lot of people, including myself, because I am married, I take it hugely seriously. I married my wife. I don’t plan to be with anybody else. But if my wife were to die, which touch wood, I don’t want that to happen, I’d like to think that someday I might meet somebody else at some point. And if I were to die, I wouldn’t want my wife to be on her own either. So I guess from that standpoint, yes, I think it’s probably a pretty good phrase. Does that cover what you mean?

James Pearson
Yes, I think so. I think I like what you said there. I think that’s really, really important. I also like to carry a little bit of that sense of, there isn’t a parting of ways, it’s more of that experience that is shared together, continues through the rest of your life regardless. That’s my take on it. That even if you do end up having a second relationship, or even a third or fourth relationship, you’re still holding that person or that experience with that person inside you as you travel through life.

David Billington
Yes. Well, there’s a gentleman that I interviewed recently on the podcast that I do, and he is honestly, a wonderful man, James. I think you’d really like him. He’s called Gary Andrews. Gary unfortunately lost his wife to sepsis really suddenly, in the mid 2000s. Her name is Joy. And at the time he was a film producer, he comes to Vancouver to do some work. And he found out that she was a bit under the weather, but he was talking to her phone. And then it transpired over the next few days that she was getting more and more ill. He didn’t realise how unwell and then he eventually arrived back in England not to find his wife, but actually to find I think it was a couple of her family members to meet him at the airport, to say we’re really sorry, but she’s died. And Gary has always been someone that’s been big into illustration. So it’s been a big part of his professional life but also his personal life. So at the end of each day for a number of years now, coming up to about 10, he’s done a little illustration, posted it to Twitter, to Instagram to represent his day. And after Joy died, he thought am I going to continue to do this? Is this interesting to people? And so that night, he just drew a little broken heart and he just uploaded it. And he uploaded a little bit of text as well to explain what that meant. And then every single day after, he continued to upload sketches and his drawings. Anyone can check him out. He’s called Gary Scribbler. You can find them on Twitter. He’s fairly well known now. And eventually this got picked up by a publisher. And they asked him to turn it into a book called “Finding Joy”. And so the book has got probably three pages of writing, the beginning kind of sets the scene. And then after that, the rest of the book is just illustrations of all these kinds of different situations, because they have children together as well, and just how he’s dealing with being the widower and how his relationship changed with Joy after she died, but she’s still there. And yes, to be honest, he is such an articulate man and the way that he explained how his relationship has changed, but it’s still really, really concrete, even though she’s not here. And it’s not just for him, but for his kids as well. And they’ve created different ways and rituals to have it still hurt but also be a part of their lives. I think it’s just really important to recognise that when someone’s gone, it doesn’t mean that they completely disappear.

James Pearson
That’s fascinating. I’ll definitely check him out. And I need to listen to the episode, the podcast actually, because I think that would be really, really good listen, so I’ll get on that.

David Billington
Yes, anyone who fancies listening to the podcast, it’s called “A Safe Place To Breathe” and you can find that on both Apple and Spotify. And there’s a couple of episodes.

James Pearson
Perfect. So just coming back to this idea of having a good relationship with death. I know that a lot of your good work is really to raise the profile of being able to talk freely about death. So do you just want to share a little bit about that work and how it feels, and the impact that you feel that you’re having?

David Billington
Yes, so that’s always been a big part of our ethos since before we started because I’m sure like most people, I didn’t grow up having tonnes of conversations about death. It wasn’t something that was in my sphere at all to be honest. Up to the point that we started Full Circle in 2016. But it’s become I feel just a more and more important issue as the years have gone by. Especially over this past couple of years with COVID because it’s affected so many people so quickly. They’ve been able to have these conversations, have been able to have them openly and honestly, with people, hopefully ahead of time, rather than people just be kind of dumped in the situation where they need to suddenly make loads of decisions very, very quickly, I think is really important. And it can empower people to be able to have those conversations earlier, with the people that they love, rather than feel that they’re going to be put in a situation where they’re already probably feeling pretty vulnerable. And for some people, bereavement can cause huge mental health shifts. I know it would do for me, and I’ve seen it multiple times that unfortunately, sometimes it can fracture families as well. And if there’s already a bit of a tenuous relationship between certain individuals, adding a bereavement on top of that can make things very, very difficult. But having these conversations ahead of time can just help to kind of smooth that out.

And so something that we’ve been very keen on, has been going to speak to people. Sometimes we’ve done public talks, there’s solicitors, firms, we’ve done talks to care homes and hospices, and anyone that would want us to come and speak, we’re more than happy to. But to be honest, ever since the pandemic started, we weren’t really able to go and do this face to face. So we shifted our model and we moved into a more webinar based format. And so since, I want to say, probably March or April last year when it all kind of kicked off, that’s when we started this monthly webinar format. In the beginning, it was just us. Every single month we were talking about a different topic that can relate to bereavement, or funerals, or well being, and then over time we realised actually, we probably aren’t the most interesting people that could be speaking on the subject, and so we had a number but ever since then, I don’t think we’ve done one. We just had a number of different guest speakers come in to talk about what they’re doing in this space and why trying to highlight this work, just to be able to open up the conversation and allow people space to have these really important conversations in a place where other people are just going to be genuinely engaged, and they’re not going to be shut down. Because I think a lot of the time, from the experiences that I’ve had talking to people, there are family members that have tried to have these conversations, but the recipient isn’t in a place where they want to talk about it yet. And so it could be really hard for people if they have tried to start that conversation and it’s just not being received very well. So we’re trying to give people the opportunity to be able to have these conversations in a place where it’s going to hopefully just improve their knowledge and then empower them further down the line.

James Pearson
Well, that’s really interesting. I remember a few years ago, when my grandmother died, more than a few years ago now, but my father asked me if he could use a song that I’d written in the funeral, and I said yes, of course. And it was presented to the vicar who was taking the service at the time. And I remember his reaction to it was “there’s not very much God in it”. And my reaction to that, of course, was well, no, it’s been selected because its content represents my dad’s feelings about his mum. And I think a lot of the celebrants that I know also host funerals, they’re funeral celebrants as well, so they’re very involved in that work. But how important is it for people to … no let’s rephrase the question. How important is tradition, or keeping tradition, as well as moving forward with our thinking and being a little bit more open minded about what is possible in a funeral?

David Billington
I think that completely depends on the family and what is important to them. Because we’re a bit of a disrupter within the funeral industry, because we don’t wear black. Traditionally, we will do if people ask us to, and we do for probably a huge percentage of the funerals, but we don’t do it day to day. We ask the question “do you want go that way, and I think it’s an important one, because some people just assume that the funeral director is going to turn up and wear black. For some people that is a big thing that they don’t want any black. But a lot of people have these kind of preconceptions about funerals, that this needs to be done. You have to use a traditional hearse, you must have the service at a crematorium, or a church. Whereas in fact, there are no rules to how a funeral should be. A funeral should be representative in my opinion of the person that’s died and the wishes of the family that it’s related to.

So for instance, we’ve had a number of funerals which were held at alternate locations. So useing hotels, village halls, in their houses, in the past, we’ve held them in the room that I’m sitting in right now. They’ve wanted a different venue that’s not associated with any of those places. And I’ve found when you move into a more informal atmosphere, that immediately creates changes to creative scope. A lot of people are going to be attending and you can almost see their shoulders drop, and they become a little bit more engaged in the process. And they know they don’t have the time restrictions on them. Because that’s another big thing, if you’re going to use the crematorium you generally have an alloted time, and that’s not a lot of time to represent someone’s entire life. But just because you’re using a different venue, it doesn’t mean you can’t still have traditional elements to the funeral, if they’re important to you. So we’ve had people use traditional horses or horse and carts even, which are very traditional. But use completely alternate locations, but then ask everyone to wear black because they felt that that’s actually something that’s really important to them. So in my opinion, there’s no right or wrong answer to what other people want. And there’s no you must use this part of tradition. You cannot use this. I think it’s just more about exploring conversations with people and finding out what’s important to them. And as I’m sure happens within the wedding industry, and then trying to tailor everything to make sure that you represent an important part of everyone’s wishes that’s going to be engaged in that process.

James Pearson
Very good points. I think there was some some words I want to draw out. I think when I came first to visit you and your premises, I think I had that experience. Even though I wasn’t there to discuss a death. My shoulders dropped. It was like ah, okay, we’re relaxed. We’re relaxed in here. We’re relaxed in this space. So I think environment is a very interesting one to bring up.

David Billington
One of the things that we were very keen on actually as this relates to mental health and well being is that we wanted to create an environment that actually made people feel relaxed. And certainly you see behind me the wallpaper has got trees on. All of the kinds of materials that we use within our services, we try and use either natural images or actual natural materials. Like the wreaths are made from various kind of seashells and different twigs and berries, and all this kind of stuff. And the idea is it’s all based on what’s called biophilic design. So it’s about bringing nature from outside to inside. And the theory behind this is that it actually reduces people’s stress levels. Because let’s face it, if you’re walking into a funeral directors, you’re not going to be in the best place mentally, for most people at least. And so we wanted to be able to just create a space that people walk into and hopefully feel immediately this is actually safe place. This is friendly. This is inviting. I don’t think unfortunately that is representative of what most people think of funeral directors practices. So we wanted to try and stand out a little bit in that regard.

James Pearson
It definitely has that effect. It had that effect on me for sure. There are lots of elements of what we’re discussing here in my own experience of funerals. And I think traditionally, all my experience of funerals have been in the church. There’s been a ceremony, it’s been a little bit short. And not that much was said about the person really, very little, and that encompasses my entire experience of it until very sadly years ago, we lost my wife Rachel’s mum. And it fell upon Rachel really to organise every aspect of the funeral and she decided herself that she was not going to wear black. And this was the first disruption that I’d experienced in my life. Because she decided no, I’m going to wear a bright blue. I actually worked with her and we wrote a lot of the content of the funeral ceremony. We wanted to tell stories that encompass the life of her mum and the experiences that they’ve had, and try and make people laugh, which was initially received quite poorly. But then they started to warm to it, you know, because it was so new. I mean, what Rachel brought in initially, was new to me. It took me a while to get up to speed, and then what we presented to everybody was very new, and it took them a while to get up to speed. So do you think that the work you’re doing in trying to open up lines of communication… do you think that’s breaking down walls and making people more open to these ideas?

David Billington
I hope so, James, and I’ve got to say, I’d love to be able to say that we were the first people to do this, but we are definitely not. There are a lot of great funeral directors out there that are along sort of similar thought patterns of what we’ve been discussing today. And I think it’s about anyone that finds themselves in a position where they would need a funeral director, I would just encourage them to have a bit of a look about and maybe just not go straight to the closest person geographically that they’re associated with. Then feel like they’re going to get a service which doesn’t represent what they actually want. Because there are a number of different services out there that all which have different offerings. But yes, I really hope that what we’re doing is breaking down walls and is just helping people feel like they’re in a more powerful position when they’re in a place where they do need to create a funeral, because I think it’s a really scary place. It’s always really scary. Put in a position where you don’t really know anything about that industry or what to do or what to ask. And I suppose that’s the whole point of us trying to get people to think about these types of things a little bit more ahead of time. So they can start to think about options and questions that they might like to ask. And something that we’ve done for a number of years now is, I’m sure everyone’s heard of funeral plans, which is more like a financial kind of product. But we’ve done something called funeral wishes, which is essentially like a free letter document that we can hand out to people and all that is is just a number of different questions that people might want to consider. And it just hopefully starts off that thought process and the conversation as well with the person you know, it might be because some people do it for themselves, and kind of pass it on to their solicitor or important person in their family, or even sometimes back to the funeral director. And for other times people were doing it or with somebody else just to get that conversation started.

James Pearson
That’s really cool. I did in fact lose my other grandma to Alzheimer’s and that was a very horrific and terrifying time. For me personally, and something that again, I find it very hard. Well, actually, I’ll rewind a bit. The story is my grandfather didn’t want a traditional burial. So my grandma is buried in a memorial garden. She doesn’t have a tombstone because he wanted it to be a more of a communal space, which I think is a very nice idea. And I don’t really find myself being drawn to places like that. I feel myself being drawn more to keeping hold of the experience of the person, and my grandma was very instrumental, no pun intended, in helping me with my GCSE music when I was learning to play piano. And I wrote a lyric to talk about grandma, and it was “I feel you sitting beside, to patiently guide”. And it’s the idea of just keeping grandma, sort of with me, rather than having a loss ritual. I have a ritual of inclusion. And I find that that helps massively because I’m not concentrated on the loss. I’m concentrated on what she has given me as a person and what I continue to use, and I find that super, super helpful.

David Billington
Yeah, I think that’s a great example of well, of what we were talking about before, of this kind of continuing bonds, using it in a more positive light. I think that’s one of the messages that we’re trying to put forward is that although death is something that no one wants to experience, unfortunately, it’s going to happen to everybody. So being able to kind of shine a more positive angle on what’s going to happen is only going to be beneficial to everybody involved. And so if you can find ways that are really personal to you to do something like you just described, that is making your grieving experience a lot better for you in the long run.

James Pearson
Fantastic. All very, very good tips and very good advice. So yes, where can people find you, David? Just before we very almost run out of time here.

David Billington
Yes, we’re pretty easy to find. So if anyone just Googles us, we are Full Circle Funerals. We have four services that are based throughout Yorkshire so we are in Halifax, Harrogate, Bromley and Leeds, and then just on the edge of Leeds in Guiseley.

James Pearson
Wonderful, well, David, I would just like to personally thank you for coming online and sharing that with us. I am always behind a story of sort of, what’s the word? Victory over adversity. Like you said, death is something that’s basically inevitable, we all have to face up to it. And facing up to it in a positive way is just the the best way in my opinion. So thank you very, very much for your time.

David Billington
You’re welcome. Thank you for inviting me on James. Really appreciate it.

James Pearson
Pleasure. Great. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to speak to you soon.

You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: