It was always a cllassy send-off

A CAREER in the funeral service has been anything but grave, for two Suffolk men who are retiring after a combined 80 years of service. JOSH WARWICK hears some fascinating tales of what it's really like.

A CAREER in the funeral service has been anything but grave, for two Suffolk men who are retiring after a combined 80 years of service. JOSH WARWICK hears some fascinating tales of what it's really like.

DIGGING graves, building coffins and collecting corpses would seem to many to be more like a punishment than a job.

But Francis Hawes and Bob Sharman have done it all with a quiet calm which has earned them praise from their boss, after they retired.

The duo recently hung up their top hat and tails for the last time after serving Suffolk funeral firm Farthing, Singleton and Hastings (FSH) for a combined 80 year - and insist there isn't any other career path they would rather have picked.

Francis first joined the company more than 60 years ago at the tender age of 16, and despite formally retiring ten years ago, he has continued to assist in various capacities.

Initially apprenticed as a carpenter, Francis soon became involved with all aspects of the funeral trade, gaining his Diploma in Funeral Directing in 1959.

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Francis, of Station Road, Trimley St Mary, said: “I have always enjoyed what I have done, and you get used to tough parts of the job.

“I wouldn't put anyone off from working in the funeral business. But it's a job you have to like and you can't be faint-hearted. It can be tough. I have picked up bodies that have been murdered and that can be a real challenge, especially if someone has been in water for sometime.

“And on a couple of occasions I have moved bodies who I have known. But the only ones you don't get used to are the babies or young children. They always bring a lump to your throat.”

Bob served his apprenticeship as a stonemason, joining FSH 20 years ago. But he soon became involved in the funeral service as well as stonemasonry.

Bob, 74, of Tranmere Grove, Ipswich, said he was initially sceptical about helping with funerals.

“I didn't want anything to do with the funeral business,” he said, “but a young lad who was working with me used to help me carry the headstones. He would ask me to return the favour by helping him with the bodies when he went and picked them up and eventually I agreed.

“The first dead body made me a little nervous, but after that I didn't find it too distressing. I was there to do a job and it turned out to be the best job I have ever had. It was wonderful.

“I always liked the caring side of the job. You have to be respectful, you are helping people at a very difficult time and you get very involved with the families.”

The obesity epidemic has affected the funeral industry too, according to the pair. Bob said coffins are bigger than they were when he started and bodies are heavier too.

Francis added: “On the odd occasion we would need eight people to carry the bodies because they were so heavy. And you get some that you can't fit into the refrigerator. I noticed in the 70s and 80s that the bigger coffins started to become the norm.”

Bob has been involved with the funerals of a handful of Suffolk celebrities during his career, including the Cobbold brothers and cartoonist Giles. He said: “The biggest I have worked on was John Lyall's funeral. It was a wonderful funeral to be involved in, especially seeing all the footballers.

“But you don't always know much about the person. Then you go to the church and hear all about them and what they did. It's been a very interesting, a really enlightening experience. I would not have missed it for the world.”

FSH boss Luke Farthing paid tribute to the pair's dedication.

He said: “We value their contribution, loyalty and reliability and we are very sorry they have retired.

“Their reassuring calm experience will be greatly missed.”

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WHILE the pair ensured that every send off was handled with appropriate dignity, they were still able to enjoy the job's lighter moments.

Bob said: “I remember once taking a coffin to the cemetery and when we got there the grave had been dug in the wrong place.

“And there were certain things that people wanted putting in their coffins which used to make me smile. There was one man who wanted chestnuts in his coffin, although I never knew why.

“Smokers used to like some of their favourite cigarettes or cigars in there with them. People also liked to have photos of loved ones. And a friend of mine had a football in his coffin.”

Francis added: “About three years ago, a farmer from Hadleigh told us there was an oak tree in Shrubland Park that he wanted for his coffin. When he died we had a call to go and cut it down. It was a very heavy coffin!”

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