Care and compassion: the life of an undertaker
Photographs: Matt Austin
Throughout this year of meeting the people who make Devon work I have had the pleasure of discovering the ins and outs of the jobs that are vital to our communities and way of life. This month’s interviewee though has to take the crown because whatever happens in your life, whatever path you take, eventually you will need an undertaker. It is a fact, in this great big circle of life, so when the time comes it is important to know you are in safe, reliable and trustworthy hands.
It is not a job that many school leavers will consider an option but for Ryan Squires it was a career path that was well laid out for him. His grandfather, Walter Squires, started the business in Tiverton back in 1933 which then saw Ryan’s father, Peter, take over in 1984. It might have seemed obvious to others that Ryan would follow suit but as he tells me, at 15 years old, he had other ideas: “I always thought of myself as creative and I had hoped I would do something with music or art! Of course I was a very typical teenage boy who didn’t want to do what he was told but there was a subtle emotional undertone of how going into the family business would be best and what my granddad would’ve wanted.”
So upon leaving school Ryan joined the family business and started to learn his craft and, despite initial reluctance, he soon found it was something he was rather good at.
The death of Peter however, when Ryan was just 23, was a shock but also a chance for Ryan to show what he was made of. A steep learning curve followed and it took time for customers to trust this young man: “I would knock on the door of a customer and announce myself as Mr Squires and they would do a double take and it would be a while before they would accept me,” he reveals.
Undertaker Ryan Squires: 'We do our best to help people at a really awful time and because of that you do become emotionally entwined in people’s lives'Undertaker Ryan Squires: 'We do our best to help people at a really awful time and because of that you do become emotionally entwined in people’s lives' Over the last 27 years Ryan has steadily built on his family’s reputation, expanding the business to include offices in Cullompton, Pinhoe and the latest addition in Exwick. A job that, at times, can’t be easy but Ryan has a very positive outlook on it as he tells me: “We do our best to help people at a really awful time and because of that you do become emotionally entwined in people’s lives. They sit down with you and want you to know all about the person that has died and they really want to involve you. It makes you become part of the family for a short time.”
Ryan is constantly dealing with people in their darkest hour which must have an affect on him and his family but even so he tries to remind himself that life is precious: “I value every moment of it. I see every day how fragile life is and how it can change in an instant.
“People probably think of undertakers as dark miserable people but actually we’re generally not because of what we witness every day.”
Ryan’s wife, Mel, is also a funeral director and they met when she worked for a rival firm; now married with two children there is the chance that next generation will one day take over but it is something that they are fairly relaxed about, Ryan says: “I would be very proud if either of my children wanted to run the business but if they didn’t want to that fine as well. As a parent wanting to protect my little ones in many ways I would rather they chose another profession.”
So what makes a good day in the office when you are an undertaker? It is something Ryan gets asked a lot and again has a very positive response: “People ask me how I cope being around death all day but the way I look at it is that every day we deal with people who are alive and coping with what life has thrown at them. A good day in the office is getting that phone call a day or two after the funeral and someone saying thank you so much for what you did. In my eyes there is no need for them to do that but it is amazing when they do.”
Ryan has certainly changed from the rather wayward rebellious teenager he described himself as and has turned into the very essence of compassion, reliability and dignity. Something I am sure his father and grandfather would be proud of.
On the bright side of life:
One gentleman was taken to his funeral in his battered old Citroën estate as he loved that car.
Yes, people have fallen into the graves!
Ryan has dealt with drunks and violent behaviour at a funeral.
One funeral saw a mourner locked in the house as everyone set off for the funeral.
Ryan’s claim to fame is that Jimmy Carr follows him on Twitter.