The man who created floral tributes for Violet, Queen of the Travellers
Florist Eddie McCormick was the force behind some incredible memorial displays that made news around the world, writes Laurence White
It is not every day that a funeral attracts national headlines - not because of the identity of the deceased but because of the astonishing variety and scale of the floral tributes. But that is what happened when Violet Crumlish, known as the Queen of the Travellers or the Lady Diana of the Travellers, was buried in Northern Ireland at the end of last month.
Travellers are well-known for the excesses that accompany family events, as anyone who has ever watched the Big Fat Gypsy Weddings series on television will readily accept.
Yet the sheer scale of the floral tributes that accompanied Mrs Crumlish's funeral put even those images in the shade.
It took two flatbed lorries to bring the displays to St Colman's Cemetery in Lurgan. Even the funeral cortege was a thing of wonder, with the coffin borne on a carriage pulled by four white horses and relatives driven to the church in 10 limousines.
What most people did not realise was that the planning for the funeral had been going on for some time.
Mrs Crumlish lived in Bristol, but wanted to be buried back in her native Northern Ireland. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and five weeks before her death, members of her family came to Belfast to begin making arrangement for the funeral.
One of their first ports of call was to Falls Road florists Flowers Are Us, run by Eddie McCormick.
The 54-year-old businessman is well known to the travelling community, providing flowers for all sorts of family occasions, birthdays, weddings, Valentine's Days, Mother's Days and, of course, funerals.
"I do a large number of travellers' funerals," he says. "My shop is directly opposite the undertakers that the travellers prefer to work with.
"Violet's son, Alex, came to me about five weeks before she died. The whole family was in turmoil at her impending death. They didn't quite know what sort of tributes they wanted. Indeed, they asked me for some things that were impossible to do, but we talked through a number of options.
"What really surprised me was the number and the scale of the floral displays that they wanted. It was an exceptional order.
"I must admit I felt really sorry for Alex. My own mother, Marie, died in July last year and like Alex I was the oldest in my house and it fell to me to make many of the funeral arrangements.
"I have four sisters and obviously they were very distressed when our mother died, so I could empathise with what Alex was going through."
While Eddie freely admits that he cannot tie a simple bouquet of flowers - he runs the business, oversees the purchase of supplies and makes the delivery of orders - he nonetheless exercises his own quality control.
"Every display that we make has to please me," he says. "I may not do the flowers, but I know what looks right as far as the customer is concerned. If it doesn't make me happy, then it also won't make the customer happy". Fulfilling the funeral order was difficult for a number of reasons. Eddie explains: "In England, burial usually takes place some time after death, but here in Northern Ireland people are normally buried two or three days after departing.
"That was something Violet's family had difficulty coming to terms with. They couldn't quite grasp at first why all the displays could not be made with fresh flowers.
"The sheer number and size of the tributes meant that we could not possibly make them all within two days.
"In cases like this, where unusual displays are requested, we use outsourced specialists to help us and also used a lot of artificial flowers because of the time lag between starting the order and the lady's death."
The family had also requested large-scale photographs depicting important times in the life of Mrs Crumlish which required the use of a reproduction firm. Many of those pictures had also to be framed with flowers.
Among the most unusual floral tributes requested were a Chanel handbag, a caravan, a bingo board, an iPhone, lipstick, a single cigarette, bottles of alcohol and alcopops and a three-foot mock Rolex watch. Even the normal displays spelling out 'Mummy' were giant-sized. And to round off the order, Eddie was also charged with putting floral displays in the church for the funeral.
"Essentially the family wanted the day to be both a celebration of her life and a requiem for her death, a mixture of cheer and sadness," he says.
"And they did give her a really great last goodbye. After all, the funeral flowers are the last thing we are ever going to buy for the person who dies."
The widespread publicity which surrounded the funeral - reports were carried on online news media around the world - was something that Eddie could never have dreamed off when he began the business in 1999.
Before that he had been a taxi driver for almost 20 years, but it was his own father's funeral which, in a roundabout way, led to his career change.
"The undertakers, Healey's, who did my father's funeral knew that I was a taxi driver and had a PSV licence and later asked me if I would consider driving one of their limousines on an occasional basis," he explains.
"I had never driven a really nice car before, so I just jumped at the chance. I worked mostly at night in my taxi job and the occasional new work would be early in the day, so it really suited me fine.
"I was doing the job for a while when it suddenly struck me that florists must have steady work for funerals, weddings and all the other family occasions.
"I remember telling my wife, Helen, about my idea, but she was a little sceptical since I had no experience of that business. Then a shop directly opposite the undertakers became vacant - I think it had been a confectionery shop - and we decided to jump in with both feet. Thankfully, we have never looked back since."
A full-time florist helped out in the initial stages and the business quickly built up to include his wife, one full-time and three part-time staff. And Eddie is still amazed at some of the requests he gets for funeral displays. "I remember we had to make a pair of diving boots for a man who had been a keen scuba diver in life," he says. "Other strange requests included cats and dogs, motorbikes and even a plane."
On occasions like Easter or Gay Pride events, he sources green, white and orange roses or rainbow roses to meet customer demands. Most of his flowers are sourced through local wholesalers, although he also takes deliveries from a Dutch company twice a week.
The only thing Eddie will not discuss is what people will spend on funeral flowers. "We try to work within whatever budget people have," he says. "Our traditional display for on top of the casket starts at about £100, but if that is too expensive for some people we will ensure that they get something suitable. We won't let them leave empty-handed."
He won't even give a ball park figure for Mrs Crumlish's funeral flowers, but doesn't disagree that the bill would have run into thousands of pounds.
He is well aware that travellers often get a bad press, but says that he has found them no different from any other section of the community. "I do a lot of work with travellers and always find them helpful and thankful if I do a good job," Eddie adds.
"Mrs Crumlish's family were terrific and very appreciative and some of them phoned me recently to say that they would be calling in to the shop to see me when they return to Northern Ireland for her Month's Mind mass soon.
"There are bad apples in the travelling community, just as there are bad apples in the wider community, but I have never had any problems. I treat them like any other customer, and that is just good business sense."
Eddie and Helen have three children, but so far have not had to supply any wedding flowers. Their daughters are still unmarried and their son, Christopher, a pilot with Ryanair, got married in the US.
Eddie recalls that day. "We had holidayed a few times in America and had fallen in love with Clearwater in Florida, which is why Christopher and his bride Melissa decided to get married there," he says. "It was nearly 50 degrees on the day of the wedding, which made wearing a suit rather uncomfortable. It didn't help that I was already sweating over having to make a speech as well".
Eddie doesn't have much time for relaxation, running the business seven days a week, but he tries to get to the gym at his local Whiterock leisure centre as often as possible and also does the occasional 5K and 10K run. "That is my way to de-stress," he says.
But then it is back into the van to make his deliveries. "I decided that I would make the deliveries because if a customer is not satisfied then I can sort out the problem on the spot," Eddie explains. "There is nothing that cannot be sorted out if there is the will."