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"Funeral Home": Mantle of the Expert in Practice

At a teacher training event in 1992, Dorothy Heathcote took the participants through stages in a Mantle project. It offers a model of the system in practice.


When planning a Mantle project, Dorothy thought in terms of “domains”:

Now, I use the word domains here because it helps me think of all the potential of this enterprise in terms of the curriculum. ...

She used the example of a Mantle about running a funeral home.

Now, the domains I perceive - I wouldn't like you to think I'm going to be embalming much, you know. Unless they get very interested in embalming. Right. The first domain, I would suggest - and it's not the first one I have, but it's the one I first thought of - is arranging flowers. Different kinds of arrangements, for meanings. The language of flowers. The colours and symbols that we use with flowers. Where you get them from in the world. What grows where. … That's all to do with flowers. …

The next one is the area of caskets and rituals. … If you remember, in Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood,” the undertaker measures with his eyes the passersby for shrouds. Like, I'm sure, butchers watch me when I go past, you know [laughs].

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Preservation and make-up. Wills, inheritances, last wishes and the testaments. A pet cemetery. Cemetery maps, plots and tombs.

Hope and grieving. Beliefs about the afterlife in different faiths. Ghosts. Prophecies and premonitions.

Training for “tact” and approaching people in distress.

Research and archives (previous funerals performed by the firm – which the children can invent).  

The biography of the firm. Our biographies [as staff]. Company accounts. Advertisements for the firm. Attitudes to work.

And so on. Dorothy said: “You bring in what you think is important.” You can also “take it to where you think the kids will get a kick out of it.”  It is clear that she thought, less in terms of: “How can I use this enterprise to meet my teaching targets?”, but rather: “What are the different dimensions involved in running an enterprise like this?” 

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We can't help it, can we? We bring our frames of reference. I mean, anybody who makes clothes must watch clothes, you know, and so on and so on.


So: caskets and rituals. The rituals about making caskets; about: what sort of handles; about carrying caskets; about demeanour; about storing caskets; about making them up, putting them together … and so on and so on.

Other “domains” which Dorothy identified in this case, included:

In the case of a funeral home, “it’s a very real business of living in the world, because we are a service…”


Creating a “lived” landscape  

The first task for the group, in the "Funeral Home" Mantle, was to design, and agree, a new sign for the Chapel of Rest. The next step was to create a plan of the firm’s base – a kind of “cognitive map,” a “mindscape,” so that “we’ll all know where to go if we want things”. Dorothy had a number of cards which read, “The hearse garage,” “Flower store,” “Cold room,” and so on. She said:

Right, Are you ready for the next problem? ... [gesturing to a long sheet of blank paper on the table] This is the cemetery, the churchyard, and all the places roundabout. We don't need to worry about scale in this. Shall we put the Chapel of Rest somewhere on this place that's going to turn into a map? So, just put it, anywhere will do. Right. So here is the Chapel of Rest. Now, all these places we are going to need, if we're going to run a good Funeral Home.

Now you've noticed, I've done some in blue, and I'll tell you - I went down and I had to look at, you know, down by the church where they make the - cut the marble, in that little place.  And I looked and I saw the kinds of places they have to have, you know, around. And I thought, “Bah gum, what a lot of different places we need.” So I thought, if that's the Chapel of Rest, we're going to need all these places.

She produced a second group of cards with titles such as “Marble store,” “Stonemasons’ tool store,” and “Stoneyard.”

And these are the sort that, you know, make a bit of a mess. So I thought that if we can build up the sort of spaces we've got in the building, and what’s just outside the building, we’ll all know where to go if we want things. So can you just have a bit of an argument about that. And when you've got them in position, think about, if people were walking in - just walk it in your mind, you know; say, “Oh yes, if they passed the flower store, and the marble shop … and then they'll come to where? That kind of thing, and then when you’ve done it we’ll draw a house round it, a big old house, and we’ll say, “Right, that's our funeral parlour.” Can you manage that? …

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She was encouraging the group, not only to agree the layout, but to start to form mental images of the place. After a time, she introduced a new element - a piece of text which she read out loud.


… I thought, what we ought to do now, is try and fit where this [groundplan] is in relation to the churchyard and the church. So I found some bits, and I thought, as I read this, see whether you get any pictures in your mind, and if you do, jot them down if you want to. Don't let them just drift off, because a lot of people have pictures and they just drift off. And see whether you can see – well, if you stood in our workshop, and you looked round, what you'd be able to see. All right. And then we’ll put it as part of our place-map. Ok. …

“I remember the great, bleak, round-turfed barrows, with the buzzards soaring and circling above. And the tiny cottages dark with smoke, and crowded with children. And the servants at the Hall, not having much space for themselves. And I remember the days at the turn of the year with the first buds picking on the blackthorn hedge, and bending down to find little flowers between the blades of grass. ... And I specially remember the tops of the elms of the churchyard, being tossed by the winds of October. ... November, the night one tree was brought down, and lay like a giant, dead …all jagged and ripped from its roots….”

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And I thought, maybe we could get a feeling for what there is around here and where that churchyard is. Did you see anything in your mind we could put on here [the map]? I have a sort of feeling, when I was thinking about that, that dead elm would have been probably put somewhere near here, in case we could use it. You know, the one that got blown down … Would you let me put that dead elm in there, would you ? Well, I'll put the dead elm in, and if anyone else wants to put anything else in, ... I'm just wondering where to put it? I think I’ll drag it here. If there’s anything you want to put in, don't worry if it’s not to scale.

She drew the dead elm on the plan, and labelled it, “Dead elm blown down in storm. Nov. last.”


It seems that what she was doing – and encouraging the group to do – was to move beyond creating a simple “plan,” and instead, to personalise it – to add details that would build a sense of a “lived” landscape: a place with a history, and a host of associations, stories and memories for the people who worked there.

(From: Dorothy Heathcote Video Archive, Series  B (UCE, 1992.) 

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