‘I know I’ve made a real difference’: Tooting funeral director wants to empower grieving families

Poppy Mardall isn’t your typical funeral director; she’s young, she rarely wears black and, significantly, she’s a woman in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry.

But Poppy, 35, insists she loves her job as the owner of Poppy’s Funerals near her home in Tooting – a business she set up six years ago with the aim of providing tailor-made and creative ceremonies for the deceased.

The mum-of-two was inspired by the idea, aged 27, when she contracted typhoid in Ghana – in the same year her father had been diagnosed with cancer.

“It literally stopped me in my tracks,” she explained.

“I didn’t like realising in my 20s that me and my family were one day going to die.”

Although they both survived, Poppy claims those experiences made her reflect clearly on death and its aftermath as well as her own ambitions generally.

With the support of her husband Chris Penca, 37, she left her job as the deputy director at Sotheby’s auction house to launch Poppy’s Funerals – and she hasn’t looked back since.

TEAMWORK: Poppy’s team includes nine women and two men in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

“I go to bed at night now knowing I’ve made a real difference.

“I get to empower people through the grieving process and help them make the right choices – choices they sometimes didn’t realise were possible,” she beamed.

Poppy and her team of 11 – nine women and two men – are passionate about giving the bereaved more hands-on control as they bury their loved ones.

No request is off-limits – whether that means transporting the coffin in an elaborate hearse or in the family Vauxhall!

She fondly recalled her favourite funeral a few years ago in which a family insisted they would carry the body from the chapel to the grave, despite the significant distance involved.

She explained that almost everybody in the congregation ended up holding the coffin for a short stint, swapping around in teams of six to ensure it was transported safely.

“Moments like that are the best part of the job – when a family has been able to engage with the process in a special, memorable way,” she said.

While funeral directing may seem like a strange career choice for such an energetic young mother, it is one that more and more women are making.

Just last week, it was reported that 65% of graduates from American funeral directing programmes were women – a trend that Poppy insists has travelled across the Atlantic .

She claims to know lots of women who have set up their own funeral businesses recently – a far cry from the traditional image of ‘old men with top hats and canes’.

LAID TO REST: Poppy wants to offer more choices and creativity for funeral ceremonies.

“It makes sense too because nurses are often women and they look after people right until the end of their lives – why is it that once we’re dead we expect to be handed over to men?” she said.

As for her own funeral, Poppy hasn’t worked out the finite details just yet.

All she knows for now is that – as an Isle of Wight native – she would eventually like to be returned to the sea.

She said: “I either want my ashes to be mixed with pigment and thrown into the ocean or I would like my friends and family to go out in rowing boats and scatter them themselves. I’m not sure yet but it will be creative.”

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