Funeral director Edward sends Vietnamese lorry death victims back to their homeland
By Bill McCarthy
‘The hardest part was seeing the 16 coffins lined up at the airport ready to be flown
Those are the words of Edward Cutler, a Sutton Coldfield funeral director who is well
used to dealing with bereavement. He probably thought he had seen it all in his 14 years in the business. But he became a key part of a huge international story when 39 Vietnamese migrants died in Kent, after they were transported across the Channel sealed in an airtight container on the back of a lorry.
It happened on October 23 last year, as it was transported from Zeebrugge inBelgium to Purfleet in Essex.
People smugglers subjected the 39 victims to unbearable temperatures for almost 12 hours after loading too many people into one container, starving them of oxygen and exposing them to deadly carbon dioxide fumes. Two men have since been convicted of manslaughter over the tragedy.
The migrants, 10 of whom were teenagers, travelled in a refrigerated unit, but the refrigeration was not turned on.
For Edward, known as Ed, a young man well used to death, after starting out in the funeral business at the age of 16 before building a successful business, those coffins lined up at Heathrow Airport before being flown back to Vietnam, had a profound effect.
After the tragedy, he was contacted by the Vietnamese embassy which had heard of his firm’s expertise in repatriation and wanted the victims to be taken back to their homeland.
It all started for Ed back in 2009 when he became possibly the country’s youngest funeral director, starting Cutler Funeral Service, aged 19, and going on to build a successful business that included sites across the Midlands and, most recently, London.
Sitting in his newest business in Royal Town Funerals in Sutton Coldfield, the 30- year-old comes across as an assured and confident businessman and someone dedicated to his trade.
He has an innovative view on the funeral business, with a brightly but tastefully decorated office a world away from some funeral parlours.
He said: “My clients, despite being bereaved, appreciate a more airy, more modern and less gloomy place to arrange funeral for their loved ones.”
After his first business was acquired by a large corporate firm, he went on to open offices in Cannock, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Kings Heath and Barton under Needwood. After a change in personal circumstances, Ed returned to having one local office situated in Pype Hayes.
Ed explained after the initial family business was sold, he could no longer trade as Cutler, so he used his mother’s maiden name of Slater and expanded into the business of international repatriation, opening Slaters International Funeral Directors, in London, near Heathrow Airport.
Ed explained: “I was at a crossroads,” he said. “Slaters started as a normal funeral home offering repatriation as an ancillary service, but I wanted to do more with repatriation, so we set up a new business called Slaters International, still based at Pype Hayes, but as recommendations escalated, we naturally evolved into a specialist in the field”
“The majority of business repatriation clients were in London which drew us to seeking premises in the south. We started by working from another funeral director’s premises in Pinner which we outgrew within a matter of months, at which point we had no choice but to secure our very own premises in London”, he said.
He selected a site at Isleworth, near Heathrow, a strategically placed site for flying the deceased from the UK to their homeland.
But for him, a was a bit of a risk. He said: “It was quite a big risk as it was very expensive, five times more expensive than a comparable premises in the Midlands. But it went really well and was important to get our own name above the door on our own premises.
The gamble paid off and his reputation grew, and having carried out a previous repatriation to Vietnam, he was contacted by the Vietnamese embassy to undertake the hugely complicated logistical operation of moving the container lorry victims back to their homeland.
Ed said: “We got a call in October last year call from Vietnamese embassy who had heard good things and wanted to work with us to get their people home.
“I was invited to embassy put a plan together, but as the case was being treated as a murder probe, the bodies were not released until the police and coroner had concluded their investigations.
When the call came things moved rapidly. He was called on a Friday to initiate the first stage of the operation, transferring the first 23 victims from Essex, which began on the following Monday.
He explained the timeline: “On the Monday we collected 24 of the deceased from Essex. We carried out cremations for seven and repatriated the remaining deceased persons on Tuesday.
He added: “Two days later on the Thursday the final group were transferred to be repatriated on Friday together with seven sets of cremated remains. Altogether 32 coffins were returned together with seven sets of cremated remains.”
Praising his team, including Nikki Taylor, Matthew Stevens and Alan Webb-Moore for the operation, which ran like clockwork, he said: “With our experience, we turned it around, but the logistics and dealing with that volume in the space of one week was a big deal, whilst managing to repatriate an additional nine deceased that week around the globe from the UK. Each repatriation client was an individual with their own documentation, and which all have had to be dealt with separately.
“Was it harrowing, yes it was. The most difficult part was when we conveyed the first 16 victims to the airport and saw coffins. When you see 16 coffins lined up ready to be loaded onto the aircraft, you pause you realise the enormity of what you are actually doing.”
Altogether 39 individual bundles of documents were prepared and sent along with the remains to Vietnam.
“We were prepared to turn it round in less than seven days. We had a coffin supplier on hand, ready to provide 39 bespoke coffins, and four members of staff to deal with the whole process, as it was extremely important the procedure was kept under wraps.
“We were successful in keeping all of the arrangements private, limiting the press coverage to after the arrival of the initial 16 Coffins.
“Me and my team flew out to Vietnam about this time last year to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. We criss-crossed the whole country with our translator Van Soderlund a Vietnamese woman who had her son repatriated by us a couple of years earlier, and her husband Thomas Soderlund, meeting all of the 39 families. It was a moving experience.” he said.
There they attended funerals, memorial services and socialised with families while at the same time taking in the breathtaking sights of Vietnam.
Ed, who lives locally and grew up in the Sutton area, now runs his operation from his new business, Royal Town Funerals in Four Oaks, Sutton Coldfield, with the repatriation business growing year on year.
“We still have our purpose built premises near Heathrow, but I work personally from here Four Oaks, with a team of operatives on the road taking care of the physical repatriation work. Here, I conduct all funerals myself.”
Asked who are his main customers for repatriation. “Most often repatriations are to
Nigeria,” he said.
Having a drink during their epic criss-crossing of Vietnam, taking in some of the sights and landmarks
“It is a big country with a population of nearly 200 million people, but second is the Philippines, Jamaica and Commonwealth for obvious reasons, but Africa is our busiest destination.
He said people from Hong Kong, Eritrea, Greece, Italy, Romania, Iraq and Vietnam were among current clients.
“We generally average around 26 clients for repatriation at any one point in time. This became important when the coronavirus pandemic struck. At the time of the first lockdown in March, we had 45 repatriation cases to deal with but no outgoing flights from the UK. Luckily at our funeral home in London , we had the mortuary space to cope.”
Like most funeral directors, he has seen noticed an increase in funerals as a result of the the Covid 19 pandemic. But like many other businesses, margins have been hit by lockdown restrictions on
“We have been affected he said. With numbers cut for attending funerals, people are
opting for simpler, lower cost funerals,” he said.
A veteran in his industry at 30, it seems unlikely that a mere pandemic is likely to cause this businessman problems for too long as he plans for a bigger more successful future.
© Bill McCarthy