In a discreet corner of Petersfield town centre you will find one of its oldest family-run businesses.
There’s a big nod to its past on the building next door. While it’s all about cappuccinos and espressos on the ground floor in Café Nero, there’s a timeless reminder above in the words Rowland’s Furnishings.
Furniture played a big part in the development of Rowland’s Funeral Services as a cabinet maker who worked in the store between the wars was a dab hand at making coffins. Percy Vincent joined forces with fellow craftsman Fred Pullinger and taxi driver Tim Lamport to start a funeral directors.
That was 90 years ago and while the furnishers is long gone, Rowlands Funeral Services is going strength to strength.
There’s been no outside “interference” either, as current manager Marsha Vincent is the granddaughter of co-founder Percy, something she’s very proud of.
She said: “We’re probably not Petersfield’s oldest family-run business, but we’re definitely one of them. Maybe one of a handful in the town.
“It’s one direct family line. Mary Vincent ran it until I took over in 2003 so I’m third generation funeral director.”
Funerals have changed enormously since 1934, when Percy was working at furnishers Rowland, Son and Vincent. His father-in-law, William, wanted Percy to move into fabrics but Mr Vincent declined and threw himself into the funeral business with Messrs Pullinger and Lamport.
The business thrived and when the latter two retired, it remained in Percy’s hands as a sole family business, with Mary and Marsha following in his footsteps.
Percy would have baulked at how the industry has changed. Cremations were few and far between in the mid-1930s, while these days you can have bespoke coffins in a multitude of materials and can even have your ashes blasted into space.
“We’ve got records going back to the 50s and I’ve had a look at them,” said Marsha, who became manager 20 years ago.
“Back then it was mostly church services followed by a burial and very few cremations.
“Funerals have evolved because of choice and there’s different coffins. You can get wood, cardboard, they can have jewellery on them. It’s very visual.
“I think it’s about celebrating someone’s life and wanting to match their character. Some people love horses so they’ll go for horse-drawn. Some love churches.
“There’s no right or wrong. Some people might have a particular hobby so they might opt for a cardboard coffin to reflect that.”
The number of funerals oversee every week varies tremendously. It can be four or five in one week, and zero the next. The arrival of the internet and the rise of the corporation has also increased competition, but that might have worked in the family firm’s advantage.
Marsha added: “The market has become competitive and it can be overwhelming, especially if you’ve never had to sort out a funeral before.
“But the fact is we are a one-off family business and we can help with the whole process from start to finish. With big corporations you’re relying on a network of people.”
These days Rowland’s has three chapels of rest, a service chapel and a coffin and memorial showroom. The meeting area is a warm and cosy space with family pictures and paintings of old Petersfield on the walls. Austere is not the word.
Each funeral is tailored and unusual requests are encouraged, as it’s a celebration of someone’s life and everyone is different.
Marsha said: “We do get unusual requests but I don’t see it like that because it’s all about capturing someone’s character. If they go for something unusual I find it lovely and it helps with the grieving process.”
She added: “Songs are important and something like The Last Post is really emotive. That gets played a lot.
“Fire by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown was one of the more unusual requests. We’ve also had Always look on the Bright side of life, the Last of the Summer Wine, the Match of the Day theme and Dr Who for someone who wrote a script. Everyone is different.”