Feature: Old funeral records breathe new life into the town’s past

Manager of DC Mercer funeral director, John Cammell
Manager of DC Mercer funeral director, John Cammell

DURING a recent refurbishment, a collection of old ledgers was uncovered at a funeral directors, dating back to 1913.

Recording every funeral undertaken by the firm over an 80-year period, their contents say much about how times have changed.

John Cammell, 48, senior funeral director at DC Mercer and Son, in Silverhill, said: “We are delighted to have rediscovered the ledgers. Not only are they a big part of our history, but they also represent a major part of Hastings’ history.”

The 15 ledger books which had been gathering dust at the back of a cabinet for almost two decades following the switch to a computerised records system, contain a page dedicated to every funeral organised by DC Mercer from 1913 to 1993.

Information recorded within the pages includes the deceased’s name, coffin details, and all the details of the ceremony.

The earlier records are those written by Douglas “Pop” Mercer himself, who from the 1900s to the 1950s, ran the business from the family home in Alma Terrace. His is a cursive script in fountain pen, which contrasts with the later ballpoint entries.

Leafing through the records, it is evident that much has changed from Pop Mercer’s time in charge, not least in terms of cost. In the 1920s funerals were around the £7 or less, while today the average cost is upwards of £1,000.

People are also living much longer. Pop Mercer himself died at the age of 89 on June 27, 1968. These details, and those of his own funeral arrangements were among those that were discovered on the handwritten pages.

John said that the profession had changed a great deal since the early 20th century, and even in the 22 years that he has been in the business.

He said that years ago the norm would have been a religious service followed by a burial, and one of the biggest changes has been the explosion of choice.

Now 70 per cent of people opt for cremation for example.

Requests for services of different denominations ranging from Church of England to Humanist, customised or biodegradable coffins, motorcycle, and even tank hearses are within the remit of the modern funeral director. Some families are now choosing to conduct the funeral services themselves.

This reflects a more cosmopolitan society, and with families increasingly spread out over a wider area, DC Mercer’s dealings are not restricted to Hastings and St Leonards.

It is not only the practical arrangements that have changed, but the image of funeral directors themselves. Whereas the stereotype is a hangover from the Victorian age, the reality is a world away.

This was one of the reasons for the refurbishment that uncovered the old records, to make the premises more modern and welcoming.

In decades past it used to be the norm for funeral directors to have this business as a sideline, and commonly have a main trade as builders or decorators.

Evidence of this was visible on a receipt tucked into one ledger, dated 1938, and with the heading, “W & E Mercer, Builders and Decorators, jobbing work in all its branches, Funeral Directors.”

John said: “The ledgers are an invaluable social and cultural record of Hastings, as well as a mine of information for genealogists and local historians.

“But who knows, if it wasn’t for our recent refurbishment, then perhaps they would have remained undiscovered for many years to come.”

Contact DC Mercer and Son on 01424 421805.