Bringing the funeral service into the 21st century
Anew funeral parlour has opened on Chiswick High Rd. Deliberately bright and airy, it marks a significant shift in how we think about burying the dead. The name, for a start. Tacky or brilliant? You decide. Owner Oliver Peyton, the renowned restaurateur (the Atlantic Bar & Grill, Inn the Park) and Great British Menu judge, is completely baffled by the suggestion the name might be considered offensive.
“What surprised me the most was the reaction” he told me. “To me it’s completely the opposite of tasteless. We wanted to give people the choice of a more modern funeral. We’re bringing the funeral service into the 21st century”.
His ideas are quite revolutionary, and in the course of our conversation he made me think quite differently about the way in which we do funerals. He’s already had inquiries from France and an offer to franchise the business in America.
Photographs above: Interiors of Exit Here; Oliver (standing) and Barry (seated)
“Why did you decide on a change of career?” I asked him. Again with the bafflement: “It’s not a change of career. I’m in the hospitality business”. There is one significant difference in the clientele, I persisted. “There is no difference, because essentially the restaurant business and running a funeral parlour are both about taking care of people”.
He’s at pains to point out, by the way, that he hasn’t left the restaurant business. Peyton and Byrne founded in 2005, have several restaurants throughout London, including one at the Imperial War Museum, one at the National Gallery and the restaurant at the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square.
Choice and preparedness
The idea of getting into the funeral business developed when his parents died. “My dad had a heart attack. It was a surprise that he died and we were overwhelmed with grief”. He says he feels slight remorse about how his father’s funeral was carried out. “There wasn’t a great choice and we weren’t in a good place to make decisions”. By the time his mother died they were better prepared, but still “the cemetery wasn’t great and people had to wait until we came back from the cemetery to have a drink”.
Oliver and his partner Barry Pritchard, a third generation funeral director, are all about choice. You want a natural burial, by all means, you can be buried in a field, under a tree. You’d like them to organise the lunch after, on site, no problem. You’d like it to be at a time to suit you and not to be hurried out by the queue of corteges lining up outside the cemetery, that can be arranged. Prefer a celebrant to a vicar? Not a problem.
Photographs above: Interiors of Exit Here; Oliver Peyton
“I don’t understand why it has to be so negative”
Not only is there not enough consumer choice, but he feels we’re stuck in the gloomy traditions of the Victorian era. “I don’t understand why it has to be so negative”. A funeral should be a celebration of someone’s life, he says, not miserable. It helps also if you plan ahead. He wants people to start thinking about their funeral themselves and thinking about it earlier than we do at the moment. It’s “rude” to leave it to your poor, grieving relatives to sort out. Much calmer and altogether less stressful if there’s a plan in place, and he doesn’t mind keeping the record for 20 years, he says, and updating it whenever you feel like it.
“I want to plan my funeral and to help people plan their funerals. We will pick up the deceased and take care of everything, end to end. We want to bring some joy into the process”.
Oliver is from the west of Ireland and I put it to him that the difference in his outlook is partly the difference in culture in the way the Irish consider death. I’d just seen the episode of Derry Girls in which James, the hapless Englishman is invited to his first wake and is completely freaked out by the open coffin in the living room and people unconcernedly standing around drinking and socialising. “Ach, the English are weird about death” says one of the Derry girls.
Oliver remembers his grandfather dying when he was a boy. He was laid out in the living room in an open coffin and people were invited round for food and drink and to share memories of him and celebrate his life. So yes, to him that is completely natural.
He and Barry have spent 18 months designing their own range of wooden coffins, which start from around £650. You can have a biodegradable coffin, which they import from Sweden, made of a mushroom compound with orange rind. Basically the body is composted. You can also have a British wicker coffin if you prefer, but he didn’t seem so keen on the cardboard coffins you see advertised everywhere at the moment.
Why launch in Chiswick?
I wondered why he’d decided to launch in Chiswick. It’s not that we’re particularly adventurous in our thinking about our own mortality. More that he knows the area well, as he lives in Acton and his children have gone to school here, so he knows the neighbourhood. Oliver and Barry have been developing the concept for three years. “We’ve been overwhelmed by the response” he says, “from all over the world”.
Exit Here, 277-279 Chiswick High Road, London, W4 4PU.