Peredur Roberts in churchyardPeredur Roberts

In a peaceful country cemetery in the hills of Snowdonia lies the grave of Gruffydd Roberts, the dates on his gravestone a poignant reminder that his life was cut short at just 24.

The much-loved son of livestock farmers Peredur and Glenda Roberts, it was Gruffydd’s premature death in 2013 that encouraged his father to put in motion a career ambition he had nurtured for decades.

“Ever since I was 16 I had wanted to be an undertaker,” Mr Roberts reveals.

Sadly, the first funeral he arranged was that of his son “I wasn’t working as an undertaker at that time but I had looked after Gruff all his life, it was the last thing I could do for him. No-one was going to do that for him but me.”

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Family farm

Peredur grew up at Derw Goed, the family farm at Llandderfel where he now runs a herd of 100 Limousin suckler cows and 400 ewes.

He loves farming but recalls telling his uncle before he left school that he wanted to go into the funeral business.

“He discouraged me because he was keen for me to farm so that was that,” Peredur recalls.

But the calling never left him and, as he was about to enter his fifth decade, he knew that if he didn’t follow it through then, he never would.

Tough industry

Funeral directors don’t need to be licensed but it is an industry surprisingly difficult to break into because many are family businesses that pass from one generation to the next.

For Peredur, that opportunity came when he trained with a Welshpool undertaker, Geraint Peate, who also happened to be a sheep farmer.

“The days I spent with Geraint passed very quickly because he was interested in farming and I was interested in the funeral business.”

After 18 months of learning the trade, Peredur felt the time was right to set up his own business.

He was still farming but with his son, Dafydd, now at home, he was confident he could run both businesses with the support of his family.

Peredur Roberts and his son Dafydd

Peredur Roberts and his son Dafydd

He found a suitable building to rent in the village of Pentrefoelas, a 20-minute drive from the farm, and converted it into a chapel of rest.

A local undertaker had retired and there was little provision for local people.

Investment

Peredur invested about £30,000 establishing the business – creating the chapel of rest, refrigerated storage for up to 12 bodies and buying a hearse.

As his reputation has grown so have the number of funerals he is asked to conduct. Last year he arranged 30 – eight of them in one week – but in the first seven months of this year he has already conducted 25.

One question he is frequently asked is what drives someone to become an undertaker.

“I don’t know the answer to that one, it’s just something that’s there inside you. I like to be with people and to help them,” says Peredur.

“It is very rewarding, nothing compares to the feeling of someone taking you by the arm and thanking you.

“It gives me a real sense of purpose to be serving the community. I can understand what other families are going through as I have been there.”

Peredur Roberts' cattle and sheep

Derw Goed, Llandderfel, runs a herd of 100 Limousin suckler cows and 400 ewes

Tradition

It was once a tradition for every village to have its own undertaker but, due to health and safety requirements and fewer younger people favouring the occupation, that is no longer the case.

“The big firms have got bigger and perhaps they have lost that personal service,” Peredur suggests.

He admits people are often surprised to learn it is an unlicensed profession but there is an industry body – the Society of Funeral Directors – of which he is a member. “It’s a bit like being farm assured, it gives people reassurance.”

His occupation brings him into contact with many professionals – police, doctors, vicars, crematoria, florists and printers – but it is the family of the deceased that take priority.

“I spend time listening to the family’s wishes and I aim to do my utmost to deliver.”

Peredur is no longer surprised by the different requests he gets from families – their choice of music, items they want placed in the coffin or the clothes they want their loved one dressed in.

“You have got to be guided by their wishes, to be 100% behind them. I try to accommodate whatever they ask of me.

“I have come to accept that there is no such thing as an odd request, funerals are very personalised.”

Disputes

At times, he has found himself caught in the midst of an acrimonious family dispute, where relatives disagree about the arrangements, but he has learned to take a step back when this happens.

“You have to let them find their own way. They mostly work it out.”

Arranging each ceremony takes many hours of administration; cremations in particular involve a lot of legal paperwork.

Peredur Roberts outside his chapel of rest

Peredur Roberts outside his chapel of rest

As cemetery space diminishes, cremations have become more commonplace.

“Some months it will be all burials and the next, cremations. I arranged seven funerals in January and they were all cremations.”

Some deaths are inevitably more tragic than others with age and circumstance adding to the sadness of an already emotionally charged situation but Peredur has that rare quality of being empathetic while detaching himself emotionally.

“You have got to otherwise you would be crying every day, you can’t take on everyone’s grief,” he insists.

“I deal with tragedy every week but I am able to go home and sleep like a log. If I didn’t I couldn’t do the job.”

One sacrifice he has had to make is to forego the odd glass of whiskey.

“I don’t touch a drop any more because I never know when I will get a call out.

“I might get a call from the police late at night asking me to come to the scene of a road traffic accident.

“I might not necessarily conduct the funeral but they need someone to take care of the deceased.

“Once they are out of the vehicle it is my responsibility to look after them.”

Like many funeral directors he has a wicked sense of humour.

“It could be said that someone who wants to work with the dead is a sad individual but undertakers are generally quite happy people.

“We understand that life is fragile and you’ve got to make the most of every day.”

Funeral cost

But one topic of conversation is guaranteed to make him cross.

“It winds me up when I hear reports on the news about the cost of funerals, the most recent figure I saw quoted was £7,600. 

“The most expensive funeral I have ever conducted was £4,000 and that included £1,200 for the tea after the service.”

Peredur has enlisted the help of another sheep farmer, Wyn Williams, to construct the coffins.

“He has been a carpenter since he was 15 so he puts the coffins together at the chapel of rest.

“He also sings in some of the services, he has got the right voice for the job.”

Peredur’s 22-year-old son, Dafydd, has also joined him in the business, engraving headstones.

It was a bad experience when the family commissioned a stone mason to make Gruffydd’s memorial stone that encouraged him in this direction.

The engraving on the headstone was in Welsh, the family’s first language, but the stone mason misspelt some of the wording.

“These were fifth-generation stone masons,” says Peredur.

“It was a very upsetting time for us because we had just lost Gruff but they were just very businesslike, demanding full payment even though the mistake was theirs.

“I told them I had been farming all my life and that it didn’t work like that in farming.”

Dafydd decided he wanted to make his brother’s gravestone and embarked on a training programme with a firm of stone masons in Ellesmere Port.

“They were impressed at how quickly he picked it up, in a short space of time he learned what it took others two years to achieve,” says Peredur.

The family bought an engraving machine and Dafydd now takes care of running the farm, engraving the headstones and digging the graves by machine, a work combination his friends find intriguing.

“There is a lot of banter but you get used to it,” laughs Dafydd.