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Working with the grave business of death

Massey Brothers undertakers have seen changes in attitude to bereavement and religion since they started in the 1930s. By Thomas Molloy

THE Massey family have been burying Dubliners since the 1930s when Larry, Denis and Patrick decided to close their butchers shop and switch to undertaking.

Four generations later, the family are one of the capital's dominant undertakers although the business has seen its fair share of family disputes and rivalry along the way including a lengthy period where two branches of the family, who were not on speaking terms, opened funeral parlours in the same streets across Dublin to compete head-on.

Sitting in the Massey Brothers headquarters on Cork Street in Dublin's Coombe area, Frederick Maguire and his 28-year-old son Peter make up the two most recent generations to run the business.

Surname change

The surname changed when Frederick's mother Sissy married a Maguire but the business remained the same despite the social upheaval that saw Dublin's inner city community move to the suburbs and the churches lose their hold on large swathes of the population.

While the dynasty now looks secure, family patriarch Frederick considered many other professions in the late 1960s after a university degree, an accountancy qualification and stints with Cement Roadstone. He even came close to emigrating to Australia.

Instead, the quietly spoken Frederick took over the family business in 1972 when his father died and his uncle Larry left to set up another funeral home business.

"Undertaking is not suited for the ill-hearted," Frederick said in an interview this week. "Or the squeamish."

Despite these strictures, both father and son admit to being moved from time to time. Masseys had seven suicides last week, Frederick notes sadly. "My wife comes home and is sometimes very upset."

During the 1970s and 1980s Frederick chased expansion and Dublin's shifting population, moving from the Coombe to Cabra, Inchicore, Ballyfermot and Terenure as the city's residents flocked to the suburbs.

Back then, funeral homes were a relatively new idea. "Funeral homes were not popular," remembers Frederick. "The changes came from the UK and US" where the idea of leaving a body to repose was already common. Success was not universal; an office in Dun Laoghaire failed to gain traction.

The steady expansion came despite increasingly strict planning regulations which made it difficult to find new locations then and almost precludes expansion today.

"It was 24 hours a day back then. You would get calls in the middle of the night," remembers the father-of-eight.

Even today in the age of the answering machine and mobile phones, Masseys operates a 24-hour landline which is always answered by somebody from the company.

"We still want people to talk to a human when they ring," says Peter, who often mans the phone line.

Both agree that undertaking is a tough business which takes its toll on your social life although they insist that it is an ice breaker at parties. "There's no taboo. People are full of questions," says Peter.

Women now play a major role in the business and make up around 70pc of Masseys 45 staff -- something that was not the case in the past. "They bring empathy, They are more caring," says Frederick.

The one taboo seems to be money.

They both look uncomfortable when the subject crops up although a quick look at the company accounts suggests Masseys is in rude good health.

The most recent results for 2010 show total assets less liabilities of €7.4m.

Still, the expenses are significant. Masseys has just taken delivery of a new hearse and limousine from Mercedes which cost a combined €260,000.

"The public wants a newish vehicle," says Peter. With costs like this and large land holdings, Frederick insists that the return on equity is negligible.

In response to the recession, Masseys has begun offering an economy funeral for €2,000 excluding extras such as death notices and flowers.

They are also filming a video which will allow clients to watch a DVD explaining options to bereaved families and laying out choices such as coffins, flowers and the different forms of transport available for caskets from the traditional hearse to a specially modified motorbike with side car.

The DVD idea followed a trip to the United States by Frederick and his wife to celebrate an anniversary. They popped into a few mortuaries along the way and saw that American undertakers were providing DVDs to explain services,

Irish funeral traditions are changing as removals becomes less common.

"Removals are slowly going," says Peter. "It's a shame."

Frederick blames the removal's demise on a reluctance among families to leave bodies in churches overnight and the need to save money. Peter adds a third reason: "People just aren't as religious anymore."

An increasingly secular population creates opportunities for Masseys as well as challenges. Masseys is currently fitting out an old Bank of Ireland office in Crumlin to cater for secular funerals and will soon start offering the building for secular and religious ceremonies.

The re-fitted bank will come with the usual altar but also have large screen televisions to show films and photographs of the dead.

Other hi-tech flourishes include closed circuit television to allow mourners across the globe to watch a funeral service live over the internet.

To stay up-to-date with trends in the funeral business, Frederick attends meetings of an international society of funeral home directors, returning recently from seminars on multi-culturalism in Amsterdam.

One trend that seems set to stay is cremation, which is steadily gaining ground and putting pressure on Dublin's three crematoria around noon everyday when funeral Masses around the city tend to come to an end.

It is problems like this that test a funeral director's mettle and his tact; "It can be challenging," smiles Peter.

"We want to do it gently and calmly but there are 15 minute slots and if you miss them you can go to the back of the queue."

Peter seems sure that his destiny lies with undertaking. "Growing up and watching my father, I saw how disciplined it is. How difficult," he says.

"But you might say it is all our family knows."

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