Monday 19 March 2018

From long black limos to Harleys - death's grave business won't stop

Massey Brothers was set up at a time when embalming was unheard of. Its Harley Davidson hearse is just one way it changed with the times, writes Louise McBride

Freddie Maguire in the new Massey’s funeral home in Blackrock, Co Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Freddie Maguire in the new Massey’s funeral home in Blackrock, Co Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

Most children don't get picked up from school in a limousine today, never mind back in the Fifties and Sixties. So it's no surprise that one of the childhood memories which stands out most in Freddie Maguire's mind was getting picked up from school in a limousine. Maguire is now managing director of Massey Brothers Funeral Home, but back then, his father Patrick was running the business.

"I remember being collected from school in a limousine," says Maguire. "I'd always ask the driver to go around the corner, rather than parking directly in the front of the school."

Very few Irish families owned limousines back in the Fifties and Sixties; indeed, many families only started to buy their own cars in the Sixties. Having limousines however was, and still is, part and parcel of running a funeral undertakers.

"I always remember my father Patrick bringing home American cars, or Rolls Royces and Daimler limousines and parking them in the garden," says Maguire.

So from a very young age, Maguire learnt that his family made a living in a way which was quite different to the career paths chosen by most. He also quickly learnt how demanding a career in funeral service is.

"My father was always on call," says Maguire. "The telephone was always there and had to be answered on the second ring. Everyone had to be very quiet when the call was answered to ensure the person making the call was not distracted. As a very young child, I couldn't figure out why this was the case."

It is this requirement to be on call which Maguire finds to be one of the most difficult aspects of being a funeral undertaker.

"We are available 24 hours a day. I am a married man with eight children, four girls and four boys. So it was difficult to be on call at all times when the children were growing up."

Maguire and his wife Aileen's children are all grown up now; the eldest is 43 and the youngest is 24.

"Four of my children are in the business now, which is a great help," says Maguire.

The business dates back to the early 1930s when it was set up by Patrick and Larry Massey, along with their sister Sissie (who would become Freddie's mother). The family ran a number of butchers' shops throughout Dublin at the time and decided to establish a funeral business in response to a growing number of suggestions to do so by their customers.

Massey Brothers' first premises, on Thomas Street in Dublin city centre, included stables for horses and space for cars and carriages.

It was the first funeral home to open in Ireland because funeral homes, as we know them today, did not exist back then.

Over time, differences of opinion on the direction of the business led to a split in the company, with Patrick Massey starting his own funeral business in The Coombe in 1945.

Sissie Massey was gifted the original company. She married Patrick Maguire and both ran the business, as well as raising four children, with Freddie being the youngest.

Now 68, Freddie grew up in Inchicore but moved to the Old Naas Road in Bluebell when he was aged 11, taking over the business in 1972.

Massey Brothers arranges one in four of all funerals in the areas in which it has a presence, according to Maguire. The business currently employs about 40 people.

"Ours is arguably a male-dominated industry," said Maguire. "However, half of our employees are women and seven of our 10 branches are managed by women."

The company has grown from one branch in the 1930s to 10 today, the most recent addition being Blackrock.

"Lots of things have changed since the business was first set up in the 1930s," says Maguire. "There was no embalming back then. In the 1930s, people's choices around funerals were also very limited.

"There was not much choice around things like the ceremony, burial, coffin and transportation. Today's families have a wealth of choice and are far more involved in the detail of the funeral.

"There's no such thing as a standard or typical funeral today. You can have a civil or religious ceremony. You have choices around the time of day of a ceremony. You have choices around transport, music, readings and so on.

"In the crematorium, you can bring in your own tapes. You can have music of any type, from heavy metal to rock and so on."

As Massey Brothers was set up in the heart of old Dublin, the city's traditions feature strongly in many of its funerals.

"The Molly Malone song is a popular choice in the inner city," says Maguire.

Like most businesses with a long history behind them, Massey Brothers has had to change with the times. In recent years, it started to offer new products and services, such as space for civil funerals and international repatriation funeral plans (for people who die in Ireland and need to be taken back to their home country and vice versa).

The company recently introduced a Harley-Davidson motorbike hearse to cater for the increasing number of motorbike enthusiasts who would like a biker's send-off.

It also offers pre-paid funeral plans, where individuals can plan a religious or civil funeral ceremony either at home or overseas and pay for the funeral in advance.

Changes in society and changing attitudes to religion have led to more diverse approaches to funerals.

"Ireland has changed over the last few years," says Maguire. "We have become a more diverse society, and we cater for that as well."

There has also been a shift away from removals in recent years, although many families still include them as part of a funeral, according to Maguire.

He cites Glasnevin Cemetery as one of his favourite graveyards. "It's fascinating because of its history and the famous people interred there," says Maguire. "Balgriffin is another one of my favourites, as it is by the sea and it has a very soothing effect on me."

Asked what Irish funerals might look like in another 100 years, Maguire is philosophical.

"The reality is that nobody knows. Who in 1916 would have been able to predict that people living in America or any other country around the world would be able to attend a funeral in Ireland via the internet in 2016?"

However, Maguire believes that space restrictions could lead to big changes.

"Some capital cities in Europe have a cemetery plot where the plot is leased for a number of years, but not owned. In London, there is a graveyard in a forest where there are no headstones. This is all down to lack of space and is something which we might see in Ireland in the future.

"And in America, you have funeral homes in residential areas; basically, large houses that act as funeral homes. However, that couldn't happen in Ireland because of planning laws."

Never say never though - even in a profession which deals with one of the two certainties in life.

For more info or to contact Massey Bros, call 1800 740000 or visit

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