Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Undertaker Beverley Brown was closely involved with the preparations for George Best's funeral GERARD SMYTH

Belfast woman Beverley Brown (33) was the undertaker who accompanied George Best's coffin back home. Here, she tells Claire McNeilly about her role in one of the biggest funerals the province has ever seen, the huge satisfaction she has in her job - and why she lives for the day

DEALING with death is never easy, but for Beverley Brown it's simply a part of everyday life.

DEALING with death is never easy, but for Beverley Brown it's simply a part of everyday life.

The 33-year-old undertaker organises around 30 funerals a week - and it was her expertise behind one of the biggest in Northern Ireland history, the burial of football legend George Best at Roselawn Cemetery.

Out of respect for the Best family, Beverley remains reticent about her role in the 59-year-old Manchester United maestro's final send-off last November.

But her close involvement in that momentous day, amid an unprecedented outpouring of grief for one of the province's favourite sons, was clearly a defining moment.

"We knew it was going to resemble a state funeral and that made preparations very difficult," recalls Beverley, who works at James Brown and Sons on Belfast's Newtownards Road.

"I mainly worked behind the scenes with the PSNI, as well as Belfast and Castlereagh Councils," she says. "In my current position, it's the biggest funeral I've been involved in."

The iconic Best - who would have turned 60 a few weeks ago - died from multiple organ failure after a long and very public battle against alcoholism.

And Beverley - who admits to a football fixation after meeting the current Glenavon manager Jimmy Brown on holiday in Spain - travelled with the former Northern Ireland international's remains as the hearse made its way from RAF Aldergrove to his father Dickie's home at Burren Way in east Belfast.

"I think the funeral will have left a lasting impression on anyone who was involved in any capacity," she says.

"My abiding memory is how emotional it was. I was in tears.

"On the drive back, cars were lined up along bridges and roads from the airport to the motorway. There were hundreds of people clapping as we passed. It was a surreal experience."

It was the second time the firm of funeral directors has had intimate dealings with the high-profile Best family at a tragic time in their lives.

"We organised George's mother Ann's funeral in October 1978, so the family had a connection with us," Beverley confirms.

Impeccably made-up and glamorously turned-out in a long black dress and jacket, it's not hard to believe the former Richmond Lodge pupil comes from a retail background.

"I worked at Next in Belfast for four years and then spent another four in London. But at 27, I had had enough of retail," she says.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do, so I went back-packing through Australia.

"Before that trip, I had always been a very shy person, but it brought me out of my shell and gave me confidence."

In 2002, when she came back home to Belfast, she joined the family business her great grandfather established in 1904.

Although her father, also called James, sold the company 18 years ago, he is still at the helm. Beverley refers to him as "the big boss".

"I had grown up in the industry," she explains. "It didn't frighten me or make me feel uncomfortable ... so, when dad said there was a job available, I thought I'd give it a go."

Four years on, she manages six of the English parent company's 14 funeral homes in Northern Ireland, looking after fleeting (drivers and vehicles), as well as the preparation department, where bodies are embalmed during a process called 'hygiene treatment'.

"On average, between 30 and 40 remains pass through the department each week," she reveals, stressing the importance of what takes place there.

"People who have died are very pale and if someone has been ill, or dies in distress, it can have an effect on their physical appearance.

"But if we do our job right, the person should appear to be asleep. Giving relatives a good memory of their loved one is an extremely important part of our business."

While all death is traumatic, loss as a result of child suicide or road accidents can be particularly harrowing.

"I was in the preparation room when remains were brought in after a child suicide," she says. "It really got to me ... maybe because I remember being that age. I found it hard to believe that someone so young could think there was nothing to live for."

She continues: "Sometimes police call us to the scene of a road accident and that can also be horrific."

Aside from being caring and compassionate in general, surely it takes a special set of skills to deal with death under such traumatic circumstances?

"The only way you can work in the business is if you're the type of person who doesn't take it home with you," she agrees. "You need to be able to switch off. Growing up in the business has helped, although I also have very supportive friends in whom I can confide."

As Northern Ireland legislation stipulates that, normally, a funeral must take place three days after someone passes away, Beverley stresses the importance of the time scale.

"We have a 24-hour answering service in our funeral parlours. Once staff are informed of a death, the remains are lifted - whether from home, a nursing home or hospital - and brought in for hygiene treatment.

"Then the necessary arrangements are made for burial or cremation. Although some people may think it's quite a simple process, there's a lot of detailed work involved in organising a funeral.

"We carry out the family's wishes - we'll stop the hearse at the family home on the way to the graveyard, for example. We also take care of the hymn sheets, flowers, paper notices and so on."

There is also an after-care service for bereaved families.

"After the funeral someone from the office will make a courtesy call," says Beverley. "We supply information about CRUSE Bereavement (the UK-wide charity) and we also run a series of Living with Loss seminars aimed at people who are finding bereavement difficult."

Although Beverley dismisses any suggestion that doom and gloom prevail in a funeral parlour environment, she nevertheless concedes that her job does make her consider the frailty of life.

"Being an undertaker definitely makes me think about mortality - but the people I work with aren't morbid," she says.

"We are providing an important, worthwhile and necessary service and we take pride in what we do.

"Most funerals involve people in their 70s and 80s - and that's the way life is meant to be. Perhaps that's why it's so difficult when someone dies young; you feel they haven't had the life they were born to lead."

She also derives a certain strength from her role: "I think it makes me live life for today because none of us knows the minute it's going to end."

Despite its inevitability, attitudes to death and how to deal with it vary, according to Beverley.

"The funeral business in Northern Ireland is still very traditional, with a 70:30 ratio of burials to cremations," she explains, revealing that she herself doesn't want to be cremated.

"After cremation, the ashes are either buried at a tree grave or scattered somewhere. Some people also like to sink a casket at sea.

"As far as I know, there aren't any restrictions on scattering."

Perhaps the driving force for what she does simply comes down to job satisfaction?

Beverley says: "I have a great sense of pride in my great grandfather for starting the business, as well as in my dad for all he has achieved.

"We are very close and get on well together. We provide a necessary service for people at an incredibly difficult time. We're able to help when they are completely lost and don't know which way to turn."

Her mum Sandra, incidentally, was a physiotherapist-turned-interior designer before she retired, while her brother James (32) is a barrister in Kent.

"I have two nieces, one nephew and another one on the way, but they're not allowed to call me auntie!" she says. "I am too young!"

But has her career choice dissuaded potential suitors?

"Maybe it does put them off and that's why I'm single," she quips good-naturedly. "But, generally, I find they laugh - or they're fascinated."

Last year, Beverley signed up to Blake International, a company that deals with disaster-affected areas - although she hasn't been called to an emergency situation yet.

"If a plane has gone down somewhere, a team goes to the scene to help try and identify remains," she explains.

"I would be more involved in the operational side of things - liaising with different organisations, meeting families, etc, as opposed to looking for body parts, but I don't know how I'll deal with that situation until I'm in it."

Interestingly for someone in her line of work, she hasn't thought about what she'd like as her epitaph.

"I'd like the people I care about to be at my funeral - and I'd like be remembered with a smile. That's how I remember my grandparents," she says.

So far, however, her career has caused her to come to an important conclusion.

She adds: "If there's one thing I've learnt over the past four years, it's that the dead won't hurt us. Only the living do."

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