Worked in a world-class funeral home with a world-class twat as a boss.
You know when you watch The Devil Wears Prada and think, Why doesn’t Anne Hathaway just grab Stanley Tucci’s hand and run?
I had those thoughts every day at a London funeral home I’ll call Kiss My Coffin. My Tucci was an overextended lady funeral director who didn’t have time to hold my hand. And my Miranda Priestly was a 60-something Irishman who used to hang with Fat Boy Slim, snagged a Michelin star, and constantly sighed in my general direction.
I’ll just keep referring to them as Tucci and Priestly.
The place seemed idyllic at first. Stunning branding. Looked like a modern fusion restaurant. Garnered Saudi Princes and Sri Lankan hoteliers as clientele. Had all the right ideas about end of life care. I was going to learn SO MUCH in quite possibly one of the best funeral homes in the world. Gah!
I booked a meeting through my usual cold email approach – making a joke about tattooing something Priestly said on my lower back.
He responded within 5 minutes on a holiday weekend. Holy Carotid Artery. Was this going to be Malcore Funeral Home Part Deux with the good wine in the cooler? I excitedly steamed my blazer and imagined how good it would feel to learn an entirely new social system through its death ritual.
I walked into Kiss My Coffin feeling like I’d made it. I found an appropriately death-themed “blind date with a book” on my walk from the underground and took it as a good omen. I bought it as a thank you gift and floated inside, ready to be memorable and life-giving but not too American.
The meeting went meh. I asked all of the questions. No one seemed to care why I was there. But Priestly (the owner of the funeral home) laughed at my Ted Lasso joke so maybe there was hope? I later asked Mark if all British people have had lobotomies. He reminded me about British reserve. “But he’s Irish, so who knows.”
I received an email a couple of days later inviting me to shadow, and I left my body fantasizing about dressing a woman in a saree. Coming off a year of mostly Catholic funerals, I was excited to go deeper. And I was prepared to journey the insane 1.5 hour commute one way to make minimum wage in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I’ll just like, freelance all night every night to make up for it. My life story in death work.
The next few weeks were stranger to navigate than Bed Bath and Beyond.
First, the good stuff. Tucci was someone I would happily wade through maggots with. She was young, but experienced. Edgy, but professional. She’d gone through heavy loss and was desperate to arrange a drag queen funeral with a purple glitter coffin AND IT WAS SO COOL to learn from a chick! We had a moment where a spider landed in her hair and I wordlessly scooped it up and put it outside. Did we just become death besties? Probably.
She cut her teeth on East London funerals that were mainly Hindu, and explained why they used ghee during washing ceremonies. And how important it was to visit the home (Hindus do home services!) to make sure the coffin would fit. And that I needed to personally drive all of my procession routes before they happened because London.
Tucci knew all the things, and was a one woman show. She was pinging me spreadsheets and legal documents and showing me how to tie a martial arts robe between meetings. But she needed four of her. Not someone who was still fairly new to the death industry and ENTIRELY new to British society. It was like arranging funerals under water. Everything was a little wiggly and hard to wrap my arms around. But Tucci assured me I would learn as I go and would be a killer funeral director in London.
And I had some wins! I had way more suturing and embalming skills, so could help with viewing prep. I read a death poem aloud in a Coffee Morning with the bereaved and caught Tucci tearing up. I handled a walk-in on my third day solo while she was with a super high-profile client. It’s me and Tucci against the world!
But our world also included Priestly. He was successful in the music and hospitality scene in 1990s London and had appeared in some TV shows. He was celeb-y and had that chic disheveled look and would talk in a low, quiet voice that was unsettling. After ignoring me on my first day for at least an hour, he finally acknowledged my presence by telling me to use a coaster. So that’s how it’s gonna be.
I was hell bent on proving myself. Chalk it up to the friendless child who still lives inside me. I mopped up blood. Polished dentures before placing them inside a Marie Kondo clean mouth. Wrote him blog posts overnight. Ran his lunch errands. Called his SEO guy to jump into a project no one had time for. Steamed his shirts. Washed his espresso cup. The same things I’d do at any job yet the reaction was always aloofness. I knew this would never be a relationship in which I could say Can you hold her FUPA while I pull her pants up? But I accepted that because of the learning experience.
He hated my writing. Could “tell I used to do marketing.” Looked me up and down to wordlessly shit on my outfit. Told me to mirror Tucci’s tone and bring my energy down. Which, okay, fair enough. It’s a different culture. I can adapt. I was adapting.
Perhaps the wisest thing Priestly told me was that I needed to know the difference between a dude wearing a t-shirt and a dude wearing a t-shirt who happens to be a millionaire. I needed to be able to suss it out in seconds and know exactly where they want to eat and be seen. I went home to Google WTF an OBE is, which Priestly happened to be. I began to wonder if I wanted to serve such expectant clientele, and if I could learn an entire class system in a few short months.
By this point I still didn’t have a consistent schedule. I was getting texts the day before I was needed and sprang over to them like a labrador in dress slacks. One day he called me out of the blue and asked if I would be willing to work at their new location that was opening in a couple months.
WTF? You don’t even LIKE ME Priestly! You literally winced when you discovered I ate a protein bar for lunch. Now you want to plunge me into a new part of town with basically zero experience and no help? Isn’t that kind of a massive liability? It was such a strange assault of mixed signals. He was visually put off by me yet was constantly giving me more responsibility with no direction.
Once he air-dropped me 44 photos and told me to just “handle them.” Wut?
Another fun time was when we spent 45 minutes writing a 7 word Instagram caption together.
After cutting myself a key for the funeral home, and still having no contract or offer of pay, I asked DO I WORK HERE OR WHAT. Which is bold enough to cause most Brits to stroke out. Priestly was chill though and said he’d draft me a trial contract by early next week.
“I guess you’re in!” Tucci said with a wink. She affirmed how hard it was to break into the funeral director scene in London, ESPECIALLY at this place. And I felt golden again.
But the contract never came. And neither did the money.
What was this weird-ass, highly-successful, yet terribly-functioning place I’d landed in? This funeral home lights up the Internet in Ad Age and Wallpaper articles. Did Priestly just know the editors? How did he get the good fortune of Tucci? Why was Tucci there? She all but fell over when I mentioned he’d complimented her in private.
Wait, what did he say? He just, never really compliments me ever.
I finally got to work my first funeral and to my disappointment, had to ride over with Priestly. When he parked the car and walked away from me with no instruction, I knew I was going to leave. Tucci was showing me around the crematorium and I was fighting back tears because I knew I’d never be able to do death with her so long as Priestly was in the picture. Did I mention he’d hang up on me when I didn’t have an answer to one of his questions? Turns out some people DON’T say goodbye when they end a call. I thought that was just a movie quirk.
I’ve never known what it feels like to work somewhere against my better judgment. I suddenly had a tiny window into every tormented soul who has ever stayed in a shitty relationship hoping it would go back to the way it once was or could be. I learned that leaving the thing that’s wrong for you is sometimes harder. Because you know it won’t end in love.
I realized how privileged I was to be able to leave.
I gave my notice. Tucci was saddened and gave me a heartfelt response. She said, “Priestly isn’t a bad person. He just has sky-high expectations and honestly I need that to keep me on my toes.” Sorry, but you can be both demanding and loving. I hated taking away the only help she’s ever known in that place, but I didn’t want to have to get used to the daily bristle. Tucci and I promised to exchange best friend coffin necklaces and she gave me a shortlist of the best funeral homes in London. My shero.
Priestly never replied to my message. And that was the perfect on-brand response.