I remember when funerals on the Island were nearly all burials. Before May 1961, cremations had to be held in Southampton, which involved travelling over by paddle steamer and taking a whole day. This wasn’t something that most people wanted to do and, with most previous family members having been buried here, cremation wasn’t really considered as an alternative.
Nearly all services were in church followed by burial in the churchyard. Cemeteries were originally attached to a church, but, as they became full, churches often bought more land nearby. Transport to another cemetery was either by motor or horse-drawn hearse, often with the congregation following on foot.
Other cemeteries were opened and operated by the local authority or parish councils and funeral directors began providing their own, including natural burial grounds with no stone memorials.
The Isle of Wight Crematorium opened on May 30, 1961 and quickly became popular. As with the national trend, cremation is by the far the most popular choice today.
Grave digging has been upgraded to mechanical equipment; gone are the days of two men with rudimentary hand tools toiling for a day to open and prepare the grave and half a day refilling and tidying up.
From my recollection, in the post WWII period, many funeral directors had other trades, with undertaking ancillary to their core business. The term undertaking refers to an individual or organisation making the necessary arrangements to enable a funeral to take place. Building contractors would often be undertakers as they had the logistical ability to carry out the necessary services; for example, a workshop and a carpenter to make coffins, men to dig graves and act as pall-bearers, and premises which served as a chapel of rest or they co-operated with the local church for this aspect. In rural areas like the Island, this method did much to serve and reassure the community.
These local businesses and their respected figureheads offered much needed comfort, with a familiar face guiding the family through arrangements at a difficult time.
Hearses and cars were often hired in from a carriage master, printed service sheets were unusual, and generally arrangement was much simpler than today. Certainly, the time frame from the date of death to the funeral was far shorter than it is now. When I look at our old records, it was normally only a matter of days.
As the years passed, things gradually changed; undertakers became better known as funeral directors, and have become separate businesses. Some took over smaller village businesses and began to serve a wider area. These firms bought their own hearses and cars and obtained their own premises. They began to offer a much wider range of services, with a selection of coffins, arranging floral tributes, press announcements, printed orders of service, wakes etc.
From around 1990, mainland groups, with large numbers of branches they had acquired, came over to the Island, either buying local firms or opening new branches in competition. Before this all the Island’s funeral directors were independently owned.
The form that a funeral service takes has changed, and these days many are conducted by life celebrants, particularly at the crematorium. Until around the turn of the millennium, there were no alternatives to a service led by a religious minister.
Funeral plans have taken off too. Until about 1990, no-one planned very far ahead and certainly didn’t pay for their funeral in advance. Now it is common to take out a plan to cover the cost of your chosen funeral and to ensure your wishes are known.
Recently, there has been another fundamental shift to what is becoming known as ‘Direct Cremation’. The cremation is carried out unattended with no mourners present, leaving the option for family and friends to celebrate the deceased’s life at a separate event.
These two last changes have been the biggest I have seen during my involvement in the funeral business over the last 70 years.