by Sandra Downes in London
It was a long road with many twists and turns, but more than three decades later it eventually led to Ian Greaves becoming one of England’s handful of black funeral directors.
In 1964 Audrey Broomes returned to Barbados with her three-month-old twin, Ian and Denise. The family lived in St. Lucy for a while before settling in Carlton, St. James.
Ian Greaves was quite industrious in his youth. As a teenager he had already worked as a gardener, labourer and butcher and was content to continue making wrought iron furniture in his cousin’s shop. But after persistent prompting from his aunt Stella, he thought he’d “give England a try”.
Returning to his birthplace at 17, determination to do well pushed him to train, study and move from one job to another to gain experience.
New to the country, Greaves soon found work. “My first job was as a kitchen porter at J Lyons. But there was one guy who started picking on me all the time, for whatever reason. I was new, I was a porter and I was black.” Despite several complaints, the employee was never reprimanded.
One time he knocked a chair from under Greaves and laughed, but the day he put candles in Greaves’ lunch after he went to get a fork from the kitchen was the last straw. “I didn’t say a word but I told myself that if today is the day I will be sent home, so be it. I pick up a frying pan and had it behind my back. I walked up to him, his head was down and he was laughing. I gave him one lash in the back of his head with the frying pan and when he jumped up, I gave him a lash in he face and I down hand in he,” Greaves recounted. The employee was fired that day.
A few years later Greaves did a catering course which led to his role as Head Chef with British Telecom, where he cooked for around 500 staffers daily. “The pay was £111 per work; £444 pounds a month – I can’t forget it because I had a mortgage to pay, a car to run and a house to run out of that. The only little perk was that I didn’t have to buy food,” Greaves remembered.
As much as the former St. Lucy Secondary student loved cooking, he got frustrated being stuck “in the same building, doing things the same way every day.” Besides, he didn’t have enough autonomy in the kitchen. “There were six chefs and five white supervisors,” he said, “a whole heap of them. They had nothing to do all day but to oversee what the chefs were doing. We have our way of doing things. I remember one day I was washing some meat and a supervisor told me I was ruining the meat by washing it.”
Sce it had the same owners, Greaves applied for a transfer to work at the post office. “There were lots of black people working there and a lot of Bajans. I had more fun and excitement sorting mail than I did in the kitchen. I remember on pay day the money used to come in a lorry. You had to queue up at a pay booth and get your cash in a brown envelope.”
Greaves also worked at the Travelling Post Office, a train which went from London to Newcastle collecting and delivering mail. On those trips he endured some staff members calling him ‘jigga-boo’ and similar derogatory names. “They got away with calling black people a lot of things back then. Today they couldn’t even try it.”
Greaves started working as a funeral assistant “here and there” in 1995. “It was very interesting; it wasn’t something I had planned to do but I started to like it so I continued.”
He remained at the post office for 17 years but before leaving, Greaves took a two-year sabbatical and studied plumbing and heating, because “plumbers were making good money and I wanted to get ahead in life.” He started IG Heating &Plumbing and by the time he returned to the post office, workers were being offered early retirement. After working the night shift there for ten years so he could take care of his daughter Keisha during the day, Greaves took his package. He is also father to Eric Zephirin.
Never forsaking the funeral industry, he worked with directors as much as possible. Thoughts of having his own service began when the establishment he worked with most, refused to entertain employees’ opinions. After meeting Damien Melville – a black funeral director, “I began chauffeuring and assisting him in October 2015, and I found we could discuss anything. He showed me the laws, the red tape and all that went with this business. The hearse and the first two limousines I have today, were his. When he was upgrading his fleet, I told him I wanted to take the three vehicles off him but I didn’t have the money. I promised to pay him as soon as I could.”
“Not a problem,” Melville answered. “He shook my hand and called it a gentleman’s agreement. As soon as I started working, I paid for the vehicles. He is a gentleman, and I had only met him a few months before. We continue to help each other up until now; we still work hand in hand. So I started my business in February and by April I had my own vehicles.”
“Once I left Melville, the first funeral I did was a Bajan. My 100th funeral was also a Bajan. When I started in 2015, I was operating out of an Asian Funeral Home. Last July 6 I had the grand opening of Greaves Funeral Services. My sister Denise was there and my mother cut the ribbon. My father (Oliver Greaves) was ill so he didn’t attend. By the grace of God I acquired my own establishment with an office, two chapels, embalming services and my own mortuary. I was able to find someplace that looks decent and pleasant – no slapdash nothing.”
Greaves had high praise for all his staff as well. “Without them there would be no Greaves Funeral Services,” he expressed, including his twin who did all the clerical work from Barbados, when he was getting the business off the ground.
“It wasn’t easy but I never sat down in this country. I fought and fought and I gambled (took risks) … I wasn’t afraid to take chances.”
Being black in Britain came with its own issues and Greaves spoke of being stopped by police while driving. On one occasion he was using a private ambulance, having just made a pick-up at a hospital. He was returning to work when he heard a police siren, so he pulled over and he and his colleague Fraser got out. “Both of us fully dressed in jacket, tie and striped trousers.”
Fraser immediately asked the policeman how he could help. “What do you guys do for a living?” the officer asked. “What that has to do with why you stopped us? What did you stop us for,” Fraser countered. When the policeman insisted on knowing their occupation, Greaves recalled Fraser going to the back of the ambulance, yanking open the door and exposing two corpses. “You go along,” the policeman responded, “you go along, go along.”
Reflecting, Greaves believes “it was a good thing to have come here at that age, but I’m also grateful that my mother took me to Barbados because I had the basics of what growing up in the Caribbean is. Those who grew up here with a mobile phone in hand, toys and running water in the house wouldn’t understand it, but it shows you hardship and how to manage.”
When not hard at work, Greaves spends time with his partner Rita, listening to music, cooking, playing cricket or catching up with news. (SD)