Brummie James loved everything 1920s. So his daughter, Marie, wished him a final ta-ra with a full-on Peaky Blinders themed funeral.
“Dad was quite an eccentric character. He was very funny. His Dad jokes were awful but you had to laugh. He was a fire officer when he was younger. That’s how he met my mom. She was a nurse. He fought karate since he was in his 20s until he was about 68. He liked to paint little lead soldiers, little models. He got requests from all over the world to paint them because they were so good.
“He was a big family man. I’m the only child. My sister passed away before she was born and my mom passed away when I was 15. He was protective. He used to phone me about 10 times a day. It used to annoy me, but I miss it now.
“He wasn’t around in the 20s, he was born in the 40s. But he loved the era. He loved the Peaky Blinders programme. The flat caps. The clothes. He couldn’t wait for series 6 to come out. He passed away halfway through so didn’t get to see it all. We used to go to the Peaky Blinders shows in Digbeth in Birmingham. The Black Country Museum. Anything 1920s or Peaky Blinders themed. It was something he enjoyed to do. He was a carer for his wife, so it gave him a chance to get out and do something different.”
“He had no will. No final wishes. Nothing. As far as he was concerned, he was fine. He didn’t expect to die. We didn’t know he was going to die. It was sudden and he had nothing in place whatsoever. Everything was my decision. I was the only child. It was me that had him removed on the morning he passed away. I phoned the funeral director I’d used for my Grandad’s funeral straight away. Dad had to have an autopsy, so I dealt with that too. Then it was up to me to arrange the funeral.
“I decided on a Peaky Blinders theme for him. I wanted it to be exactly how he would’ve wanted it. There were no ifs, buts or maybes. To me, the most important thing was to give him the send-off he deserved, making sure everything was accurate to the era and how it was supposed to be. I worked with the funeral director on a daily basis. It was constant. I wanted to check that everything was organised and in place, so kept following up on everything.
“He died in March and funeral costs went up in April. This meant that costs were changing as I was planning the funeral. I decided to get a custom coffin. It was cheaper to do that than to use the funeral director’s coffins. It was nice to have a purpose-made casket. I got to choose exactly what went on the nameplate on top. Instead of saying “born” and “died” followed by dates, I decided to have “sunrise” and “sunset”. I chose a quote: “To live in the hearts of those we love is not to die” and had a peaky cap engraved on it too. I picked the colour, what it was made out of, the colour of the satin inside. And it was exceptionally cheaper. About half the price. The funeral director was fine about it.
“My daughter designed the order of service. She used Canva. We sent the designs directly to the funeral directors and they printed them off. That saved some money too. Of course, we arranged for a horse-drawn carriage. When I started planning the funeral, the cost for the horse-drawn carriage was £950. But by the time the funeral came around, it had gone up to £1050.”
“When someone dies, you have to decide what they’re going to wear when they’re laid in the coffin. He was dressed in his full peaky gear that he always wore. He went with everything other than his clock and chain which my daughter has and his wedding ring which I have. As tradition goes, you’re meant to put money in their pocket to pay the ferryman to take you to heaven, so we did that. He went with a cigarette, a roll up, a lighter. A letter. A replica tommy gun. Photos of everybody. And he went with a buddha necklace that his best friend put in with him to represent his karate. We bought a Peaky Blinders blanket and draped that over his coffin too. We put his peaky cap on top. I knew I wanted to keep that once the funeral was over.”
“On the day of the funeral, people came from all over the country to say ta-ra. His coffin was in the horse and carriage with his flowers. I’d arranged the flowers myself. I have 2 friends who are florists. I asked them to make flowers that said “Dad”, “Grandad”, “Jim”, a coffin spray, a Newcastle United heart, a pillow of roses and some other flowers. His friend’s family made a tank from flowers to show his interest in the world wars and his love of painting model soldiers. He had a big angel with feathers on too.
“The gentleman who drove the horse and carriage didn’t wear top and tails. He wore a peaky cap and a waistcoat in keeping with the theme. The horses were black with black sashes on their backs and black feathers on their heads. I drove behind them in my own car, leading the cortege with 2 Peaky Blinders flags attached. The family limousine went behind me. Then other friends and family. The person at the back of the cortège had flags on her car too. Every traffic jam let us through quickly. I’m not sure if it’s because it was a horse and carriage but there were a lot of people taking their hats off and bowing their heads as we went past. He would’ve loved that - the pomp and feeling special."
“It was a Christian funeral in a church. On entering the church, Red Right Hand was played – that’s the theme music for the Peaky Blinders show. The vicar led the service. I read a poem. A friend of mine read a poem on behalf of my daughter – she was too upset to read it herself. Then a few other people spoke – my friend, his friend from the fire service, his best friend who he met through karate. There was about 25 minutes of poems and remembrance. I made sure to thank everyone for being in his life.
“Everyone making such an effort was one of the most touching parts of the day. Everyone wore what was appropriate; 1920s outfits in true Peaky Blinders style. My daughter chose ‘Lay Me Down’ by Sam Smith as his remembrance song. I was very poignant and had fitting words. I couldn’t not cry when it played. ‘Then Time to Say Goodbye’ by Andrea Bocelli played as we left the chapel. It’s a really popular funeral song, but for good reason.”
“I was thinking that the horses would be tired having taken him all the way from his house to the church and then the cemetery, but they were fine. We walked about 150 yards behind the horse and carriage from the church to the graveside where he was being buried. I decided to bury him with my Mum in Handsworth Cemetery. We’d applied to Birmingham City Council to reopen the grave and everything was in place in time. At the graveside, the vicar said his piece, then his 2 best friends, myself, 2 of my children and 2 of my friends lowered him into the ground. Then my boyfriend removed the ropes from beneath the casket. Then we released doves.”
After the funeral
“The day didn’t end there. We had a wake. I wanted to make sure that everyone got there, everyone ate, everyone had a drink. I told myself I couldn’t lose myself on the day and to focus. It was hard but I had help from so many people. My friend provided the venue for the wake for free. The food was provided by a local Jamaican food shop. My daughter’s friend paid for that. Everyone came together to make sure that everything went the way it should. And it did. People were wowed. It wasn’t a funeral that anyone will forget in a hurry. Of course, I didn’t do it for that reason. I can hear him now saying “HOW MUCH?” He didn’t like to overspend. But I did it because it’s what I felt he deserved. It was worth it.”
Marie’s tips for planning a funeral
“The hardest part of planning Dad’s funeral was not really knowing what to do when someone passes away unexpectedly. He was fine and then he suddenly wasn’t. He was gone and I didn’t know why. When he died, the paramedic passed me a piece of paper confirming he was gone and then I was left not really knowing what to do.
“I’d planned funerals before. But when my grandparents had died, they were in a hospice. The hospice took care of them and I just picked up the documents and worked with the funeral director who’d collected them. But Dad was at home. That’s why I automatically called the funeral director I’d already used. He was taken for an autopsy, but it felt like it took forever to get his body back. There was a lot of back and forth with the morgue. It was completely out of my control. But you just have to keep phoning and following up."
“My biggest piece of advice for anyone planning a funeral is have a notebook. It’s really useful to have important contacts written down. The funeral director’s number, doctor’s numbers, morgue’s numbers. The funeral home will ask the questions you need to answer. Things like what they’re going to wear, what’s going in the coffin with them, how many cars you need. But take time to answer. Make notes. Do a brainstorm of everything you want. What they would’ve wanted.
“Never feel like you’re annoying or bothering anyone. If following up to make sure everything’s going to plan puts you at ease, follow up as much as you like. Make sure that everyone’s doing what you’re paying them to do. Most importantly, breathe. It’s difficult to stay calm. Especially if things feel like they’re not going as you expected or parts feel out of your control. But make a cup of tea. Give yourself a break and take each day as it comes.”
To thank Marie for sharing her story, we’ve made a contribution to The British Heart Foundation in memory of James.