Lianna Champ was just nine when she first told her mum she wanted to be an undertaker, and she still has no idea where the idea came from.
She didn’t know anyone in the profession, which was completely male-dominated at the time, but her heart was set on planning funerals.
Despite her mum’s hopes that it was just a phase, Lianna carried on, so when she was 15 she arranged a visit to their local funeral home.
Lianna, now 56, said: “I had no connection to [undertakers], I don’t think I even knew what they were.
“My mum thought she needed to do something to stop it. She hoped it would put me off as she didn’t think it was a suitable career. It was a man’s job.”
And Lianna’s career advisor at school had the same opinion, telling her she might as well ask to become an astronaut because she had “no chance”.
Lianna, from Lancashire, says: “It didn’t bother me because I knew I was going to do it anyway.”
But despite her mum’s motivation, the trip to the funeral home actually had the opposite effect and made Lianna even more determined to get into the industry.
“I was so excited. They took me straight into the mortuary and I saw my first dead body.
“I was absolutely fascinated by the workings of the human body.
“By the end of the day I had gloves on and I was helping with sutures. It went so well they said I could come back the next week.
“When I told mum she put her head in her hands, she was devastated.”
Despite her initial concerns, Lianna’s mum became a huge support and her parents ended up acting as guaranteers on a bank loan so she could open her own funeral home when nobody would employ her.
At 17, Lianna started knocking on the doors of all her local funeral homes asking for a job – but they all said they wouldn’t hire a woman.
She tried at least before 10 before she finally found someone who would take her on, but she was offered a salary much less than the going rate – which left her struggling to buy food.
She took on extra jobs as a cleaner and working in a nightclub to make ends meet – but her goal of getting her qualifications was now in sight.
“For the next three years I ate, breathed and lived funerals. I knew the manual inside out. I loved it.”
But when she was finally ready to take her diploma, she claims she was told she had to wait until her boss’s son had passed she could take hers – and he failed.
When she was finally allowed to sit the exam she passed with flying colours, becoming the youngest ever female funeral director when she was 19.
“It was amazing. It wasn’t about being the youngest person, it was that I had achieved my dream.”
She went on to take her embalmer qualifications, passing with flying colours, but was then made redundant.
Now fully qualified, she wasn’t overly concerned about finding another job – but quickly discovered people still wouldn’t hire a woman.
She decided to leave her first name off one of her applications, and was offered an interview in Bognor Regis.
“When I handed over my interview letter the man said ‘but you’re female, if I hire a female undertaker I’ll be out of business overnight’.
“I cried all the way home on the train. I cried for weeks.”
So with financial backing from her parents, Lianna got a huge loan and set to work opening her own funeral home.
At 27, on July 9, 1986, she opened Champ Funerals – with an overdraft of £175,000 – which is about about £510,000 in today’s money.
“I had to buy the building, which was derelict and took a year to renovate, I had to buy a hearse, coffins and embalming equipment – which is very expensive.
“I always just thought it was going to be okay.”
She claims she faced extra struggles as many supplies refused to sell to her as they were concerned other companies wouldn’t want to be associated with a female-run business.
When she opened her doors, she had to work hard to build trust within the community, putting her focus on families.
“People wanted to see me, they wanted to see what a female undertaker looked like.
“Some people didn’t take me seriously because they thought I was too pretty to be anything other than decorative.
“Some say I’m sort of weird death obsessive. People have walked away from me because they think I just work with dead bodies.”
“I have so much to give. I just seem to instinctively know what people need.
“It’s about seeing someone smile through their pain because you’ve given them hope.
“The time we spend with dead bodies in preparation is minimal. We work with the living, that’s where we’re needed.”
However she admits there are parts of the job she finds extremely difficult.
“You see the depth of pain people go through, especially with children and babies.
“It is beyond words.”
The industry is now very different, she Lianna is proud of the part she’s played in the change.
“We’ve got women up and down the country, it’s marvellous.
“It’s not your gender, it’s your ability and capability to do the job.
“There will always be men out there who are better than me, but there are men out there who I am better than.
“I think everybody should follow their dream, whoever they are.”
Lianna has two sons, Maxwell, now 28, and Lawrence, 23, who have grown up around the funeral home as she worked to built the company even bigger.
She’s always been very open about death with her sons, and answered their questioned honestly.
She explains: “They both saw cremations from an early age. It’s a very natural part of life for them.
“I’ve never hidden them from anything. I think it’s so important with children to speaking honestly.
“My eldest son used to sit on my desk in his carry cot while I worked.”
She believes there has been a real shift in people’s approach to grief in recent years, helped by high-profile people like Princes William and Harry and Rio Ferdinand speaking publicly about dealing with loss.
However she says the Covid pandemic has impacted grief a lot, as isolation and lockdown mean those who have lost a loved one don’t have a support network around them.
“We don’t have that constant footfall of people in our lives, so we’re missing those opportunities for support.
“We miss chance encounters with people, in which we share things that can help.
“It’s making grief seem more permanent.”
Lianna’s book, How to Grieve like a Champ, is available on Amazon.