Working as a ghostwriter with an undertaker seemed a perfect match. And it turned out to be far more fascinating than I could have ever imagined. And it was also great fun. That was because I was working with Barry Albin Dyer, an extraordinary man, who died on Saturday.
We wrote two books together, Don’t Drop the Coffin and Square Pegs in Round Holes. And I can honestly say the time I spent with Barry proved to be the most enjoyable in my ghostwriting career. I always left Barry’s funeral home incredibly inspired – and often entertained by his wonderful anecdotes.
His funeral company, and the ethics and spirit that underpin it, was an expression of Barry’s personality. It’s no wonder that F.A.Albin Sons were chosen by the Ministry of Defence to bring back the bodies of British soldiers from Afghanistan.
Barry saw his company as a family. That’s why the staff would often have breakfast together, sitting around a long table, helping themselves to toast and cereal, and discussing the funerals they were to do that day. Barry’s concern for his staff went far beyond the time they spent working for him. He took an interest in their life – and on many occasions offered help in some personal matter or another.
When many independent funeral directors were selling up to large companies, Barry refused to go the same way. He had some incredibly good offers for F.A.Albin & Sons, including from one company that wanted to take the Albin name and brand and roll it out across the UK, like Marks and Spencer. For Barry to take the money would be like selling his soul.
He viewed the area of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe along the Thames as his manor and saw supporting bereaved families as a sacred duty. He conducted funerals for royalty and film stars. But he was never happier than walking down Jamaica Road, with his top hat in one hand and his wand in the other, conducting a funeral for a little old lady on a Bermondsey council estate.
He ran a charity to help local people in financial difficulties. There was no complicated process or forms to be completed to decide who was given financial help. Barry decided. As he explained in Square Pegs in Round Holes, he had no time for unnecessary bureaucracy.
When Don’t Drop the Coffin was published in 2002, and a TV series of the same name followed soon after, Barry found himself in the media spotlight. He thrived on this, because he wanted to try and take away the mystery and fear surrounding funerals.
Jackie, his partner, and his sons, Simon and Jon, supported and comforted him all the way with his year-long battle with cancer. For someone so active and so giving, it must have been hard for him to come to terms with his incapacity. But, in his typical way, he learned to accept the way things were.
We were planning to write another book together. This one would be about some of the famous – and probably infamous – people he had encountered during his 50 years in the funeral business. Sadly, he died before we could begin.