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'99% of funeral homes turned me away'

Funeral care professional and bereavement counsellor Lianna Champ, who became the youngest qualified female funeral director in the country in the 1980s, explains what’s changed for women, and why she’s written a book about grieving. Sharon Barnard reports

“My mother always recalled that I wanted to be an undertaker from the age of nine. I had no experience of death, dying or funerals, but knew this was what I would do.

“At school my careers advisor told me I may as well want to be an astronaut as I would have no chance of either. I never wavered.

“When I was 15, my mother contacted a local funeral home and asked if she could leave me with them for a couple of hours one Saturday morning, and would they please put me off as she didn’t think being an undertaker was a suitable profession for her daughter.

“They tried. It didn’t work.

“When I started in the profession, I had to offer to work for nothing as you could only qualify in the workplace in those days. Ninety-nine per cent of funeral homes turned me away saying, ‘It’s no place for a young girl’. 

“Luckily, one funeral home took me on and I worked devotedly for the following three years, gaining my Diploma in Funeral Directing and a distinction in my Embalming Diploma. The NAFD told me that I was the youngest qualified female in the country at that time.

“After qualifying, I was made redundant but was absolutely confident that I would get another job. Again I was constantly told that it was no place for a young girl.

“I then applied for a job at a large funeral home in Bognor Regis. I signed off my application with my initial and surname. They were shocked when a female turned up. They actually told me that they would go out of business overnight if they ‘put a female out there’.

“I think the profession is a very female-friendly environment today compared to my early experiences. The opposition and prejudice towards me as a female died long ago.

“I was forced to start my own funeral company to stay in a job I love so much, but it is much more accessible for women today. When I first started, my competitors even threatened to trade elsewhere if their suppliers ever dealt with me!

“There is huge change in the way we manage death, grieving and funerals today. The biggest change surrounds the experience and understanding of grief and the importance of funeral rituals, whether traditional or unique to individual families.

“The one-size-fits-all days have long gone. Society is opening up more, but there are still areas where they are stumbling.

“Funerals aren’t seen as just a practical event but have become emotional, celebratory and ritualistic experiences. There is much more freedom and resources to find what works for us.

“I think that Princess Diana’s funeral was a huge step forward for society. It opened a door for communities to grieve together and in front of each other. I think it also made us more aware of how fragile life can be and to start conversations about our own funerals.
“There are many misconceptions in society and a great lack of understanding surrounding grief. Many people fumble through not knowing what is right for them and pretending they are fine.

“In my book How To Grieve Like A Champ, there are several chapters covering the loss of a partner, a parent, a child, a sibling or a colleague. There is also a chapter covering other types of loss such as the breakdown of a romantic relationship or the loss of a pet.

“Meeting Richard Farleigh, the Dragons’ Den TV show investor, was my life-changing moment. He told me I had to write the book. It took just over two years to write and has been a wonderful experience.

“A very close friend of mine, Guy, died last year following his diagnosis of terminal cancer. My book is dedicated to him.

“When Guy told me that it was down to me to get him through, I had to begin to understand how I did what I did. I had always worked instinctively and intuitively with grievers, but now I had to break it down and put it into words.

“In truth, Guy, unknowingly to us both at the time, was my springboard.”

  • How to Grieve Like a Champ (£9.99) by Lianna Champ is out now. We’ve got TWO copies to give away – just email editorial@fsj.co.uk with the name of any other member of the Dragons’ Den panel, plus your name and address. Closing date: 20 September, when two names will be drawn out from the correct entries.
  • Further details on the book at www.champfunerals.com

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