A day in the life of a west country private client solicitor

While you are sitting on the hot tube, train or bus hoping not to be delayed on your daily commute, think of me in south-east Cornwall on my trip into the office over the border to Devon.
Tamar bridge

Normally it takes ten minutes to cross the River Tamar on the Torpoint ferry. My commuting ferry time, with the ferry chains clanking in the background, gives me space to take stock and think about my day and my work as a private client solicitor.

This morning I was thinking about funeral wishes. My naval husband wants to be buried in the cemetery where funnily enough, he will be within earshot of HMS Raleigh and the Royal Marine band playing on passing out day. Me, I will join him, we can keep each other company in death as we have in life, in our beloved West Country – all confirmed in our mirror wills, so no surprises there.

I worked in nursing for 20 years before becoming a solicitor. Whilst working as a specialist palliative care nurse I completed a BSc in Health Studies and focused my research on the legality of terminal sedation and the use of the Liverpool Care Pathway.

In doing so, I just developed this connection with the law. I was a bit obsessed by it on reflection and was lucky to be able to change my hours and work 'twilight' shifts between 5pm and midnight, as a community care nurse in Plymouth, whilst undertaking an LLB Hons at Plymouth University during the day.

It was tough managing everything, but clearly not impossible. Initially I practised as a litigator, but with my transferable skills, my calling was always going to be in private client, increasingly dealing with the funding of care and financial abuse issues in the elderly.

A client once said to me that when solicitors are taking will instructions, they perhaps ought to ask whether one would like to be buried or cremated, in a "would you like a cappuccino or an espresso" kind of way and that stayed with me. It's about being pragmatic and it's just another way of broaching a delicate subject matter.

So, if I were to ask, what would you prefer, a burial or cremation, what would your answer be? If you are a practising Catholic, best not say that you want your ashes divided up and scattered between a grid reference on Dartmoor and underneath the apple tree in your back garden, because the Vatican has guidelines that say you shouldn't do that.

Cremated remains should be stored in a church approved sacred place, they are not to be divided up, scattered, kept at home or thrown out of a bedroom window. I met someone who did once, from his high-rise apartment, because he couldn't bear having his brother's ashes in the house for a second longer. He then had to hoover up the bits that became trapped on the window ledge, I kid you not.  

Deep in my psyche, I secretly agree with the Vatican. Perhaps it's my maternal Catholic heritage or a primal instinct preferring the departed to be wholly in one place and seemingly at peace. However, I am also a bit of a liberal pragmatist too and whatever one desires, as long as it's lawful, goes.

There is a legal principle, long established that there is no property in an adult corpse. If you have an extant will, the disposal of your remains lawfully falls (but not literally) squarely at the feet of your executors or personal representatives, who may not necessarily be your next of kin. This can make for an interesting set of affairs, particularly when executors and families are estranged or under great stress.

In one particular probate, the undertaker told me that Kofi Annan himself couldn't have satisfied the warring factions of the family, who refused to agree upon whether the deceased should be cremated, buried, given a church service or carried in a traditional hearse or on a horse drawn version. Thankfully the original will was found and his wish to have his ashes scattered to the four winds at Rame Head, after a simple, inexpensive service at the crematorium, resolved matters.

Where the deceased has died without specifying their funeral wishes, or intestate, without any surviving close family or friends, knowing what kind of funeral to arrange, can be more of a challenge.

We recently had to act in a matter where the lady had no surviving family and no immediate friends. So, on obtaining the keys to her house, it fell to me, to walk into what had been her private life and try and understand who she was and what would be a fitting way to say goodbye. Can you imagine, if someone were to do that in your house, what would they find, how could they know you and what you would want? 

Finding a set of diaries helped me tremendously, so I was very lucky. I learned that she had a love of wild flowers, had travelled widely and kept a simple, almost frugal house. There was no evidence of her having a religious faith either. I did find some Frank Sinatra records and one in particular made me smile.

A few weeks later she was laid to rest on a beautiful sunny day, in a simple wooden coffin with a bouquet of wild flowers resting on top. The celebrant read aloud to me, given I was the only other person present, about the deceased's travels across South America when she was a young woman, how she had met indigenous tribes and gone onto work at Bletchley Park in the war and then the  government until her retirement.

As her coffin disappeared behind the curtain at the crematorium Frank Sinatra's 'Fly me to the moon' was playing and I smiled again. Maybe she was playing among the stars, or perhaps seeing what spring was like on Jupiter and Mars, but most of all I hoped that she approved and it wasn't someone else's record she should have returned…


Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

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