Andrew Leverton pauses on the threshold of the mortuary. ‘I saw my first body on my first day at work,’ he intones softly. ‘They threw me in at the deep end.’ He turns the key and inside, two metal embalming tables sit in the middle of a room filled with stainless steel cabinets, tables and worktops. Forceps and surgical tools are neatly arranged on a small metal table on wheels. A series of plastic bottles filled with lurid red liquid announce themselves as ‘arterial conditioner’. A slight chill hangs in the air. Four oversized fridges marked with A-X labels are full of bodies. One is noticeably bigger than the others. ‘That’s for… extra-large bodies. We see it more and more. Sometimes the doors to the cremators aren’t wide enough,’ says Leverton.
Across a cobbled courtyard lies a coffin workshop. Drills screech as two workmen attach plaques to caskets. In a backroom, the air is thick with the scent of wood shavings, and racks of coffins stretch as far as the eye can see. It’s like an Ikea storeroom of burial boxes. Some are mahogany, some are eco-friendly wicker and some are the size of fish tanks – for the funerals of babies who have died from natural causes or as the result of an abortion.
He hops in his car and drives from the Chalk Farm mortuary back to his Mornington Crescent administrative HQ. It’s an office packed with filing cabinets and shelves which overflow with ring binders. Standing incongruously on a high shelf are a series of worn, dark red leatherbound ledgers that look as though they’ve come straight from a Dickensian drama. ‘Those funeral records go back to 1896,’ he explains. ‘It’s our responsibility to keep them.’
The wall opposite his desk is entirely covered by portraits of previous company directors stretching back to 1789. They stare down from above as captions denote the directors’ birth and death dates, and which generation of the business they ran. And they’re all Levertons. Staff member after staff member wanders in, to be announced as someone’s cousin, uncle, niece or nephew. Leverton points out that it’s strong family ties that have seen the company avoid takeover to become London’s oldest funeral directors, earning contracts for royal funerals and burying celebrities like Kenneth Williams, George Orwell and Joe Orton along the way.
But, isn’t it an odd thing to grow up wanting to do? ‘The business is always at the back of your mind,’ chuckles Leverton. ‘But most of us came to it indirectly.’ For example, one Leverton ran his own building firm for a while, one studied photography and another worked in the business part time alongside a career in PR. ‘It’s not like the old days when you’d live above the shop,’ Leverton says, before explaining that he was a civil servant until the public sector cuts of the ’80s. And the merits of the funeral trade versus a government job? ‘I’ve never regretted it,’ he replies. ‘This job isn’t just going through the motions. You have the opportunity to really create something for families.’ Alexi Duggins
For more details, see levertons.co.uk.