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Poppy Mardall:
death is so removed

Poppy first saw a dead body at 27 when she decided to set up a funeral directors, one that helps us think differently about loss, grief and death. Death lurks in the shadows, haunting us. She works to bring death into clearer view – bearing witness to lives that have ended and the emotions of those who are saying goodbye. This is heart work, she says.

Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.


I always have been an emotional person and drawn to exploring difficult emotions. I think I hate the idea that people in our society are lonely with their difficult emotions. I hate the idea that when people are having a tough time, those feelings aren’t welcome.  

It must’ve been in the boot. It was the middle of the night, so I can only imagine we’d gone over to play with some friends and maybe we’d been put to bed in their house. And my mum and dad must’ve been having fun and then driven us back. Did not have any kind of seatbelt. We were rolling around in the boot under a duvet, me and my brother being driven home from this really happy time with some friends. And I remember waving at truck drivers who must have been driving past our car or pulling up at the traffic lights and kind of waving at people who must have been higher up than we were in order to see us and thinking this was so fun and exciting and hilarious that we were getting people to wave back at us. But yeah, there’s something there about being safe, being under the care of your parents, being warm and engaging with random members of the public, which I guess I still really love. 

I’m a funeral director. My job is to try and spread the word about what’s possible when you die or when someone dies and raise expectations around death care. Probably it does make total sense that I’ve ended up doing a job, which is all about trying to make people feel welcome in their grief and supported in their grief. And that what they’re going through is, whilst oftentimes horrendous or traumatic or painful, it is part of life and it is welcome. All the feelings are welcome. I want everyone to know that great death care is possible and that it can be very, very helpful to be looked after well when you’re grieving. 

The way that people assume death care is kind of spooky and creepy and strange, and it’s not like that at all. It’s like gentle and thoughtful and meaningful to know that you’re caring for someone the way their friends or family would want them to be cared for, or perhaps in another world would have cared for them themselves. You definitely get into bed at night feeling like I spent my time well today. 

So one of my great loves is walking across Tooting Bec common and around and about. And sometimes I walk in the evening, which is, can be the only sort of time I can get out to be able to walk in the darkness when everyone else seems to have gone home often walking by the light of the moon, seeing foxes jump up onto bins and behind benches.

Injustice is something that burns quite hard in me. We definitely see it as our job to, as well as provide just excellent service for all of our clients, we see the many, many ways that people’s rights and wishes are kind of ground away by systems in place in the death care world that, you know, lots of those rules are sensible and important and about safety. And, and there’s just these endless rules that just seem to be kind of, I don’t know where they came from, but they don’t make any sense. So rules about whether the family can or cannot carry the coffin, carry the body of the person who’s died. When I sort of feel like it’s not really our job, it’s not really our right to say whether family are allowed to, or not allowed to carry the body of the person who’s died. It’s their person it’s not ours.  

Yeah it’s really difficult with death and dying because, for reasons I completely understand, a lot of people just don’t want to talk about it. And you know, death is so removed now. So the first time I saw a dead person was when I decided to become a funeral director and thought, well, I probably should spend some time with some dead people. And I was 27 and I did. And the overwhelming feeling I got was, I can’t believe, I can’t believe this is gonna happen to all of us. And I’m 27. And this is the first time I’m seeing this. It actually felt, like, quite shocking. Imagine if we lived in a world where, you know you, that you hadn’t seen a newborn baby until you were 27, because there was some taboo around newborn babies. For me, it feels exactly the same with death. If we don’t see the dead, that just contributes to our fear and the sensationalised thing of this one experience that we will all have ourselves once. And in terms of the people we love on multiple, multiple occasions. 

If we don’t discuss it, if we don’t bring it into the light, it kind of lurks in the shadows kind of haunting us. And one of the huge privileges of working with death and dying is it’s out front. You know, I can see the edges of it. I know what I’m afraid of. I know what it is, I know what it. I’ve got a healthy respect, I’m prepared for some experiences in my own life, but I’m not haunted. There’s nothing sensational about it. For me, it feels really, really natural.  

I mean, obviously joy and excitement and pleasure create change. If we can access our joy, if we can access the things that make us feel good, we can see clearly we can nourish ourselves. We can get ourselves in a position to motor ahead and yeah, just rambling a bit, but just see clearly. But yeah, sadness is interesting because again, another emotion that’s sort of perceived to be a bad one. And certainly when it comes to grief, like, so much talk about the phases and the changes, you know, the stages, and with this perception of like ‘quick, get through it as fast as you can’, and when will it be over, and when can you put it behind yourself, but sadness has a lot of information in it for ourselves and for the people around us. Yeah. I think everyone at Poppy’s gets asked that question. Isn’t it depressing kind of all this sadness sort of ‘poor you’. Um, but bearing witness to sadness, bearing witness to real emotion is one of the most inspiring kind of real experiences you can have. Getting to stand by the side of people who are grieving as they explore and create their own process for saying goodbye to and honouring the life of someone they love. How could that be depressing? That’s one of the most life-affirming things you can experience, certainly not depressing, opposite of depressing.  

This may be the windiest, noisiest walk I’ve ever had. Maybe I’ve just never been aware of how noisy it is. I’ve got trains, cars, the wind, people chatting. Even this experience is actually quite wonderful just to make me pay more attention to my daily walk. I can feel a kind of growing sense of the need to build relationships within the sector and work together to create change. And the funeral sector is renowned for being quite old-fashioned, you know, very white, very male, and resistant to change. I think that’s fair. I don’t think the sector would even describe itself as progressive. You know, I think many funeral directors feel themselves to be tasked with protecting and defending tradition in all its forms. That isn’t always a good thing in my opinion, you know, I think tradition needs to be relevant and it needs to be valuable. And when tradition is relevant and valuable, it can be incredibly important and it can be the kind of framework on which our experiences can be pinned and it can be so reassuring, but tradition, risks becoming a kind of meaningless symbol. And when we find the shared ground and I am really hopeful that there is a growing number of people in the death care, funeral care sector, who, who care hugely about their work and know that it can be better, you know, no that it could be more human. Know that it could be more thoughtful. Know that it could be more thoroughly designed around the needs of the people who are grieving, rather than around the funeral directors business model. But I think it’s a tricky balance because when there is something, when you do have a vision clear in your head, I think you do also need to protect it from being distorted or watered down by people who tell you they know better and there’s things that you can’t see. And I think that comes down to self belief and trust in yourself. I definitely know that I’m working harder these days to balance, you know, reaching out to people whose opinion I admire or people who I trust, people with experience, people I don’t know but whose experience I’d like to learn from, with also kind of tuning into my own experience and my own sense of what’s right. I think that question of knowing what to let go of and knowing what to preserve is really interesting because it comes back to this question of tradition, you know, does tradition just get upheld for traditions sake, or should we be able to pick and choose what’s working and what’s meaningful and what’s relevant, and leave behind those bits that aren’t serving us anymore. And who gets to make that decision?  

I think what’s interesting in the funeral sector is, or it seems to me like people have become really, really wedded to the symbols of tradition. So that might be certain types of vehicle or hearses or limousines or the wearing of black, or, you know, it’s almost like if, if you’re driving a black hearse, if we bring this person’s to a crematorium in a black hearse, we have proven that we are showing respect, you know? Our, our respectful approach can’t be questioned if the symbol is held in place. And I, I really am fascinated by that. You know, it’s like, what if you swapped the black hearse for a silver van, why is that less respectful? And I’d say, it’s because we don’t have the language or the customs or the confidence about what great death care looks like. So we have to use these symbols to prove that we care. Whether that be bowing to the coffin or – and I don’t have a problem with black suits and I don’t have a problem with black hearses – and we regularly mostly conformed to those customs because that’s what our clients want. But those symbols can’t take the place of genuine care. It’s in your heart. And it’s in your approach. Do you genuinely care about that person in the coffin and do you genuinely care about their family? That’s what matters. So I guess I dream of a world where, where death care is just much more open and much more transparent and much more possible where we’re not dictating to people what the funeral will look like or what death care will look like, but we’re sitting down with people and saying, what matters to you? And tell me about you, and tell me about the person who died, and let’s design this thing around you and your needs, making no assumptions that they will match the other family that I met this morning.  And obviously that’s hugely about building trust. It’s about the person sitting opposite, the grieving person, or sitting by the side of the grieving person, having confidence, having the confidence, not to follow a script.

Something I don’t know about, um, great death care is, I don’t know whether you can do that work so carefully and do that at great scale, and be vigorously profitable. Just wrestling with some hedge right now cause I’m trying to skirt around a very, very muddy patch. And the only way to manage it is to kind of implant myself in this hedge. I’m getting a bit spiked, but it’s worth it. Cause it was lovely, and the blossom’s out, what an amazing time of year. 

I think nature can teach us a lot about change. I’m very interested in the seasons and what they have to tell us about growth and flourishing and thriving, and also resting and contracting and dying and composting and mulching. And then coming back round again. What nature shows us is the promise of renewal that you can start again and wipe the slate clean.  I mean, maybe not wipe the slate clean, maybe, maybe draw from the previous season what’s worth drawing forward and shed the skin shed, what you don’t need anymore. There’s a difference between growth, as in growth as in butterfly, you know, caterpillar to butterfly as in transformation from one thing to another, there’s a difference between that and expectation of cumulative abundance as in growth like, more, more, more, more.  

And I wonder if that’s something that needs change is our expectation of having what we have and then having more, and then having all of that and then having more, and then having that and then having more, because that is definitely not how it works. You only need to look around you to know that – look at a tree, look at the forest floor, look at how the trees behave from one season to the next. It’s not just more. And maybe death is, has got some important lessons for us there. You know, that is a crucial part of the cycle. And it’s really painful, you know, in a family, it’s, it’s the welcoming of a new child and saying goodbye to an elderly relative. And that’s, you know, that’s, if everything’s gone as well as it can go in terms of people living long and healthy lives and life is endlessly disrupting that cycle by showing us, you know, not everybody does get that 95 year stretch. You know, none of us have that guaranteed. And we’re really unwise to, to assume that we do. The ‘living for the day’ thing, doesn’t make much sense because the likelihood is there is more than a day. So you need to be wise, you need to plan, but at the same time, don’t assume that the next five decades will give you all the time and space to do the things that matter most to you, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen next. Like, what is pressing now, and what is meaningful now, and what might be coming next. But death does teach us to let go of, just tells us that we cannot have the next thing without letting go of the last thing.  

And one really wonderful thing it’s brought into my life is the ability to talk to my children about death. Um, because kids are really good about talking about death and dying. You know, it’s one of those ways that as adults, it just makes us uncomfortable because we haven’t made peace with it ourself, ourselves. Um, and there’s so much to talk to children about on that front, whether that be a kind of autumnal leaf or finding a little dead mouse. And questions of death are really bound up in questions of growth. You know, you can’t have growth without death. You can’t really have anything new without something dying. I do think children, like, instinctively know that – and we all probably instinctively know that – but there comes a moment, like with so many things where we… our fear basically overtakes our natural curiosity. And in that moment, we lose a lot. So perhaps understanding death and dying in the natural place that it holds in our lives is also a way to understand growth and transformation and to be open to it.  

Do you know, one thing that’s really hard is squeezing this meaningful work into a life with other things. I really haven’t cracked that yet. It’s like a daily challenge. 

So right now I’m sitting on my doorstep, and I can see the TV is on, and they’re in the living room, and they haven’t seen me yet. But as soon as they do see me, it’ll be over. When I was coming out for this walk today, I perfected the art of leaving the house. If I could be a spy, like so silent, sort of pulling the door shut. It’s a lot of heart work. Parenting is heart work. And the work that I do at Poppy’s is heart work and yeah, even saying it now, it’s just so obvious that I’ve got to take care of my heart in order for all this heart work to be possible.