Independent Gary Valentine talks about everything from being followed by a camera crew to meeting the Prime Minister, and the funeral director's changing visibility due to COVID-19 and regulation.
Malcolm Flanders [00:00:04] Welcome to the Partnership Podcast. Over the past year, funeral directors have often been in the spotlight and few are more conscious of that than my guest today, Gary Valentine of Valentine and Turner was followed by a documentary camera crews he set up in his London premises. The documentary follows him through the pandemic. And an excerpt shown on Channel Four News contributed to raising awareness of the work funeral directors have done during extreme circumstances. So today we'll talk about that work and Gary's experience over the past year.
Malcolm Flanders [00:00:48] So, Gary, nice to see you, I haven't seen you for a few years, how are you, sir?
Gary Valentine [00:00:53] Good afternoon, Malcolm. And thank you very much for having me. Yeah I'm well, thank you, yeah very well. And how are you?
Malcolm Flanders [00:01:00] I'm not bad, actually. Sort of getting used to working from home, although hopefully soon with restrictions easing, I'll be able to get back on the road again and hopefully get down to see you. Well, I'm conscious you're busy, so grateful for a chance just to talk through with your experiences, because we have seen a bit of you on television recently, which is good news. So let's just start with your business. What's the history of your business? Who's involved? When did you start in it yourself?
Gary Valentine [00:01:28] Well, yes, so Valentine and Turner was founded in 2015, so quite a newly established funeral home and founded by myself, Gary Valentine, and business partner and best friend, Wayne Turner, with the vision of taking it back to basics and offering a really personal service, as so many great funeral directors do. We worked for bigger funeral homes, and me personally from when I was 15. So I've been in the industry a little while and it's now run by actually the four of us, which is Wayne and his wife Laura Turner and me and my wife Kirsty Valentine. Laura's now director of care, and she's now training to be an embalmer at the London School of Embalming. And my wife came on board a little bit after that and took over the finance side of what we do.
Malcolm Flanders [00:02:22] So yeah, it's a real family affair. So when I saw you last with Steve Bennett, that would have been, I think, probably 2016. So you'd only just started, hadn't you? You'd been trading for about a year on your own?
Gary Valentine [00:02:31] That's correct, yeah.
Malcolm Flanders [00:02:33] OK, so look, let's just reflect on the last 12 months because it's been pretty challenging, but none more so than for a funeral director. So for you, as you look back, what's been the biggest challenge?
Gary Valentine [00:02:46] So I think the biggest challenge was the uncertainty around what was the right thing to do. I don't think anyone, obviously with a pandemic we've never been in before as a country and as the world, and funeral directors across the board, that was the bodies that we look to in times of trouble, they obviously didn't know the right thing to say because not even the government knew what the right thing was to say. So in the beginning, we were advised to not allow families to see their loved ones. It might not be safe. And then obviously to tell a family that was very hard. And then, of course, as time progressed, we then could allow embalming and dressing. And some funeral homes aren't even doing that now.
Gary Valentine [00:03:31] But we struggled with that. And that's why we then looked to professionals, no, we made it a very safe environment for families to come in here, we were one of the first to start allowing families to come in and be with their loved ones. Because it's so hard, I'd say the hardest and the most distressing thing, just to see the family. I mean, obviously even allowing families in, they didn't have that chance to say goodbye in hospital and to be with their loved one in hospital. And then we were there to tell that we couldn't allow you to be with them here either. And I struggled with that. We all did as a family. And we got through it and we allowed dressing and embalming and that sort of stuff moving forward in a very safe way.
Gary Valentine [00:04:15] But I understand, we're a small family, we can make decisions perhaps some of the bigger organisations can't. And I guess then because of that, in our High Street, for instance, of course, because we've got some of the bigger funeral homes here, we were then getting the families that would normally go to them. So obviously, because we were allowing families to be with their loved ones in our chapel and we were allowing them to be dressed in their own clothing. We then obviously had double or triple the amount of families we normally had. So I would say the pressure was the hardest thing as well, as well as the uncertainty. But it's lovely to see that we're getting out of it now.
Malcolm Flanders [00:04:57] Well done. And I get your point around the differentiation, and as long as it was safe, that actually meant that they'll probably remember that for future business as well, I suspect. OK, so right, how on earth did you come to be featured then in the Channel Four News documentary? Interested in that one.
Gary Valentine [00:05:16] Of course, I'll be honest, I was at the other funeral home I used to work at and I was conducting a funeral and there was this lady with a camera walking around the cemetery. And she got talking to one of the lads, and started questioning him and he was very shy. He said, "oh no, go and ask Gary, he loves all that," and they sort of started talking to me about how I got into the business and all that sort, and this is while a services was taking place in a chapel. So I didn't have a long.
Gary Valentine [00:05:43] We got talking, and the next minute I was in my kitchen, and it was very much this was years ago, and they've always remained in contact with me, and then this was the time of transition when I was leaving where I worked and starting our own. So they filmed that journey. Lots of funeral documentaries have been done, but what I thought was missing was showing the person behind the funeral director. So they were with me every step of the way. They were at my children's births, they were at my wedding.
Malcolm Flanders [00:06:15] Wow.
Gary Valentine [00:06:16] They're down the pub with me, which I don't know if that's a good thing. My wife struggled with it, of course it's quite invasive at times, especially at childbirth. But, you know, it was just showing that we're just normal people and we all care about what we do and just try to destroy that of taboo that exists around undertakers. And I'm passionate about that. And that was it, really. And they've been a part of the journey.
Gary Valentine [00:06:43] And then through that, through our connections and whatnot, we were then approached by Channel Four about a documentary, very short doc on their news, just to display what we were going through. And that was at a time where the film production team that we worked with were promoting us as the forgotten front line and that's something I'm very passionate about. And, of course, the NHS is so important, from the teachers to the people working in Sainsbury's, for instance, everyone's so important and so many people were forgotten, in an industry that in the beginning nobody wanted to speak of.
Malcolm Flanders [00:07:20] No, a very good point, Gary. And so, you know, they've always been with you over the last few years. I mean, you're used to it. Any reaction from local families when they've seen cameras?
Gary Valentine [00:07:32] It's a difficult one. Obviously, it's very sensitive. They've just lost their loved ones. So the last thing they really want to do is walk into a film crew. So me, Wayne, Laura and Kirsty, we sit down and try our very best to do it in the most sensitive way. If we think there's a funeral that perhaps would be good for people to see, it was the way it was done. So, I'd get to know the family first and build that rapport, and if I thought I could then bring the documentary in, as conversation, lots of family said, "no, it's not for us." And you respect that. And of course, and we apologise if we offended them.
Gary Valentine [00:08:13] A lot of the families are people we know, because obviously we serve a lot of people we know. And I think they think as well, some of the family that did want to be a part of this journey, the idea that a loved one is displayed on television they see it as an honour, and it is because, you know, the world, let's hope, the places they want to take the film, gets to see their loved one's journey. And what an honour that is. But it has been difficult.
Malcolm Flanders [00:08:42] No, not surprised. And just so we know for our listeners, when is the actual documentary likely to be released?
Gary Valentine [00:08:50] They're still umming and ahing, so obviously there's been a lot of interest; ITV, Channel Four, Netflix, they're talking, is it going to be a four part doc, was it going to be even a six part, simliar to like Don't Drop The Coffin, that was on ITV years ago. And then now they're talking about a film. So, I mean, no matter what it's going to be, I'm told, going to be released winter this year, finally, it's been difficult, they've got the funding to take it forward to these big channels, and I look forward to it.
Malcolm Flanders [00:09:24] Having filmed you over the four, five years, you know, they've got a lot of material. So no wonder there are some options as to how best they release it. Now, you also mentioned you've done a bit of filming with Panorama in the past, haven't you?
Gary Valentine [00:09:36] We have yes. I mean, because of our relationships with London and the Mayor's office and all that sort of stuff, we've been approached to support families affected by knife crime and gun crime. And a lot of that is to do with repatriation, you're repatriating loved ones back home. You know, these are just kids, some of these are just kids, and we've had people here, 16, 17, lost their lives because they got caught up in gangs. And I feel such a lovely relationship, we all have, with their families, and it's just been heartbreaking.
Gary Valentine [00:10:07] We were doing work with lots of different people, and even Kevin Sinclair, the embalmer, he'd come and reconstruct these children basically, so their mums and dads could say goodbye. And people caught wind of this and thought, "who are these people that look after these families." And we only had a very small part of the actual show, which was called Murder on the Street, which basically showed these youngsters being caught up in gun crime and knife crime. And from that, I've gone and given speeches at all sorts of rallies and all sorts of stuff, for Mums Against Guns, and we even were asked to take a coffin to Woolwich Centre, where they basically, the mums who have lost their children, carried this coffin to the stage to represent their grief, and we were asked to conduct it like a fake funeral, basically to just show the power of grief. We're just passionate about just helping people and causes.
Malcolm Flanders [00:11:12] I can see that. It's a powerful way also of, I suppose, people seeing what you do, what you represent and your own brand values. So there's a message there for other funeral directors as well that if they were to get approached, I guess. OK. One final thing. I gather you've also met Boris Johnson, so I'm pretty sure I saw a picture of you with Boris a couple of years ago when he was campaigning, I suspect. Did they actually come round to the premises?
Gary Valentine [00:11:39] Yes, we've met Boris Johnson a couple of times. And that's because his brother, Jo Johnson, was a member of parliament in Orpington. I try not get too involved politically because of our connections in Suffolk and stuff like that. One day I could be Sadiq Khan, the next I'd be with Boris. From that, funnily enough, and this is where the Channel Four relationship first started, when Jo Johnson left Orpington over the sort of issue of his brother and it became BoJo versus Jojo, they called it, they thought that's how they come in, because me and Wayne are seen as brothers here in the community, they'd done this whole "what was our views on Brexit" and all that sort of stuff and sort of rolled it into these two brothers and these two brothers in Orpington and made a Channel Four piece over it, it was quite amusing. You probably be able to still see it on Channel Four News.
Malcolm Flanders [00:12:31] All right. So let's just stand back a bit. So from your perspective, over the last sort of five, six years in a very, very busy part of the world where you are, what emerging trends are you seeing in terms of preferences for funerals now? Is it changing at all?
Gary Valentine [00:12:48] Yes and no. Yeah, the traditional funeral still exists. People still want the norm, but yeah, you have to give people all the options. And this has come up a lot in funeral magazines about David Bowie and the direct cremation, all that sort of stuff. You're right and a lot of our competition here, they're really selling that hard. And that does affect us, because obviously some of the bigger organisations that have their own crematoriums can do that.
Gary Valentine [00:13:19] I think the traditional funeral still exists, but definitely, there's a lot more options now, and I think direct creamations are becoming a lot more popular. And then having a big memorial services, the pandemic now, because people can't gather. So I do think the traditional funeral is not what it once was like; your hearse and you two limousines and your horses, and all that. People don't feel they need to do that anymore, because we're living in times where the money isn’t there so because of this pandemic, it's really shown people that you haven't got to have all of that.
Gary Valentine [00:13:53] So, as funeral directors, we've just got to move with the times and be able to offer everything from your pink, glitter coffin to a traditional, to your direct crem, no attendance. We can't judge and we just need to just be here for when that time comes.
Malcolm Flanders [00:14:09] I get it. Great. Thank you very much. That was interesting. And final question for you. We've got regulation on the horizon. Regulation for pre-need and funeral plans, as well as on the at-need space with the CMA. How do you feel generally about regulation coming into your sector?
Gary Valentine [00:14:26] Yeah, I'm very for it. There's a lot of people that one day I believe will wake up and think, "I'm going to be a funeral director," and start opening their own. I think regulation is very important. All of us have taken our diplomas, it's something that we are passionate about. And I believe that regulation is a good thing. And I think it's going to be hard for the 200 year old undertakers, because they are the some of the best funeral directors I have met, haven't got a qualification and I don't intend to take one. And they're the ones who are going struggle. I sit with your former guest, Adam, on the London Associsation of Funeral Directors committee. All that sort of stuff, all these committees exist for the purpose of the funeral industry, so we can all work as one and do the best job we can and work together. And I think it's very good to be regulated as long as it's done properly, because there's so many great undertakers out there that don't have a qualification.
Malcolm Flanders [00:15:31] Great answer. Thank you very much. Well, thanks for your time today. And I, for one, will look forward to your premiere on Netflix when it's released in the winter. I'll look out for that in my schedule. But honestly, Gary, thank you for your time today. It really is appreciated.
Gary Valentine [00:15:46] Thank you very much for having me.
Malcolm Flanders [00:15:53] Thank you for listening to the Partnership Podcast, the documentary featuring Gary, The Business of Death is due for release, as we said, this winter. And you can see the Channel Four peice online now. You can find our previous podcast episodes on goldencharter.buzzsprout.com, or on a range of podcast apps. And contact me on email@example.com if you have any feedback or suggestions or you would like to get involved. Thanks again and I'll talk to you next time on the Partnership Podcast.