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Alison Crake, from Crake and Mallon, in Stockton, reveals people are now more willing to discuss death
Meet The Boss: We start the the business week by talking to Alison Crake, senior partner at Crake and Mallon Funeral Service, in Stockton
CLOAKED beneath a dark veil of secrecy and dignified silence, death, for many, remains an uncomfortable subject.
But that grief is beginning to turn into celebration as people's perceptions evolve.
Alison Crake, a senior partner at a funeral directors, says attitudes are continually changing, with the foundations of that move based upon Royal connections.
“The industry is a lot different to the one I started in as a 17-year-old,” she says.
“That generation chose dignified silence, wore black and grieved behind closed doors.
“But today, people are much more willing to celebrate and feel it is acceptable to be emotional, use music and give eulogies at services.
“A lot of that came from the death of Princess Diana, in 1997, and the massive outpouring of public grief that following leading up to her funeral.
“It changed the way people looked at funerals, her brother Earl Spencer's eulogy showed to people that funerals and that way of dealing with death could actually be a coping mechanism.
“People are planning for death a lot more now and are more involved in what they want to happen.
No two families are the same, but that funeral certainly made a difference.”
A senior partner at Crake and Mallon Funeral Service, in Stockton, Alison, who earned a business administration and enterprise masters degree from the University of Teesside, started working for the company in 1979.
Set up by her father, Robert, Alison's mother, Dorothy, and brother, also Robert, the business, which employs 21 people, is a real family affair.
As a youngster, Alison was a waitress at the Swallow Hotel, in Stockton, and began as an office worker for the funeral business at the firm's Skinner Street base in the town.
However, despite years of building her successful career in an industry used to dealing with the sadness of death, nothing could prepare her for the heartbreaking destruction she felt when caught up in the terrifying New York terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Alison was visiting the city with her brother, Robert, and witnessed first-hand the sheer devastation as two planes flew into the World Trade Centre, killing thousands of people.
She says: “I was sat in my hotel room and he phoned me telling me there had been a plane crash.
“I turned on the TV and saw the second plane hit the building, it was a terrible and surreal experience.
“You could see it in front of you, but part of you kept saying this can't be real, that can't have just happened.
“Our hotel called a security meeting and we found ourselves walking around the city.
“We got to an Irish bar and there was a woman sat nursing a glass of brandy at 11.30am.
“She was ashen, it is a cliché but she looked as white as a sheet.
“She could barely get the words out to tell us that she worked in one of the twin towers and had been late for work that morning.
“She was on the phone to her boss telling him she was running late to get there and would be at work soon.
“But the line then went dead, the plane had crashed into the floor of the building she should have been in.
“It was awful, the bar was crowded with people with similar stories, including a cleaner who swapped shifts that day, it was horrendous.
“We had a few days left in the city before we could come home and we went to Times Square.
“There were families holding posters and placards of loved ones caught up in the tragedy, asking passers-by if they had seen them, it was absolutely heartbreaking.”
Away from the pressures of work, Alison likes nothing more than spending time in the great outdoors, walking alongside her black Labradors, Solo and Sweep.
She lists Perthshire, in Scotland, as a favourite destination to relax.
She says: “I absolutely love it up there, the scenery is fabulous and it's a great place to get away for a few days.
“You can reach it within three hours in the car and because of that you can just escape from it all.”
Favourite North-East building and why? Wynyard Hall is beautiful; I love its architecture and its colourful history. I met the late Lord Londonderry at a ball he held there which took place shortly before my 21st birthday. Whilst chatting he asked if I was having a party to celebrate, when I said no, he replied, “well you should have one here!” His estate manager telephoned me the next day to arrange it; it was a wonderful and memorable evening.
What was your first job and how much did you get paid? Waitressing at the Swallow Hotel, in Stockton, for £19 per week What is the worst job you've had? I don’t think any of them as bad, although the hotel work was often split shifts and long hours which was tiring.
What would you cook for me if I came around for dinner? Asparagus with a chilli and balsamic dressing to start, followed by fillet steak with a rocket salad.
What would your superpower be? The ability to fly – my family and friends will laugh out loud at this as they know how much I dislike flying in planes!
Name four people, dead or alive, who would be at your perfect dinner party. Stephen Fry, David Attenborough, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith – I think they are all brilliant – imagine the conversation around the dinner table.
Most expensive thing you've bought - other than car or house - and how much? Probably my dining table, which I bought a little over 10 years ago when I moved home. It cost over £3,500 but it seats 10 people so it is perfect for having family and friends round and gets a lot of use. I had all my family round for Christmas lunch and I try to do a family Sunday lunch every four to six weeks, which is a great get-together that we all enjoy...you might want to swap your dinner invitation for a lunch invitation instead!
Who is the best person to follow on Twitter and why? I have never been on Twitter so I can’t really answer that – although I do recall reading that Stephen Fry is very popular on there.
Favourite book. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis. I remember my teacher in junior school reading it to the class, and I think it was the book that sparked my love of reading, I thought it was magical. In later years I got to enjoy it all over again by reading it to my sister’s children.
When did you last cry? In conversation with a close friend a few weeks ago. She had just had some upsetting news, we have been friends for over 30 years and it was awful to see her so upset. People could think that given my profession, I would be used to dealing with sad situations but, although I have learned to control my emotions at work, it doesn't mean I find upsetting situations easy to deal with and certainly when it is someone I am close to; I get as tearful as anyone would.
What is your greatest achievement? Getting my Masters Degree in Business Administration and Enterprise in 2008. I left school at 16 with a handful of O-levels and didn’t go on to further education, so I didn’t have an undergraduate degree before I began. I continued to work full time whilst I studied part time at Teesside University, which meant long hours. It was time consuming, challenging and hard work but I loved every minute of it.
What's the best piece of advice in business you've ever been given? From my late father – “treat people the way you would like to be treated yourself” – I think that applies to all areas of life but it is particularly pertinent to my working life. Families come to us at a most difficult time in their lives, and we are all aware of the trust placed in us. It is important, and only right and proper, that we treat the family and their loved one with the dignity and respect they deserve. Kindness matters.
Favourite animal, and why? My two black Labradors – Solo and Sweep. They are full of energy and always make me smile – walking in the woods with them is the perfect way to relax and unwind.
Most famous person on your mobile phone? Ray Mallon, Mayor of Middlesbrough. We have been friends since childhood; our fathers were close friends and business partners. I see Ray regularly and his father Joe is someone who is very special to me.
What was the last band you saw live? Robbie Williams at Knebworth in 2003.
Describe your perfect night in. A glass of wine, a good cheeseboard and a great movie, or curled up in front of the fire with a good book.
In another life I would be... M in the James Bond movies.
Who would play you in a film of your life? I would like to say Nicole Kidman, but I think it is more likely to be someone to whom the term character actress applies!
What irritates you? Poor manners – a simple please and thank you means a lot
What's your secret talent? I can juggle.