At dinner parties, Steve Cavilla recalls that a friendly enquiry into his line of work would instantly kill the conversation.

“They would ask me, what do you do? And when I said I was an undertaker, there’d be silence. But give it 20 minutes, they’d come back and say, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

The response illustrates how death is still a taboo subject, and the work of funeral directors a source of discomfort to some - but also of curiosity. Steve, 63 and now retired, says he is always happy to be open about the services we shall all need, one day.

Swindon born and bred, he started in the funeral business in 1988.

“I always had an interest in forensics, and I did apply to join the police force – but I didn’t get in because I’m colour blind,” he said. “My father-in-law had just passed away and after going to the funeral, I thought, this might be something I would like to do. I enquired with the company that did the funeral and they said, come and have an interview. I started within a couple of weeks. They offered me the job, and I went for it.”

He recalled having a curiosity about death: “It did not scare me, or bother me. One of the tests was being taken through the mortuary.”

This job did have particular challenges, however. The company had the contract for the coroner’s, and they dealt with deaths in road traffic accidents and of people who had taken their own lives.

“I’ve walked along a railway with a torch after someone’s taken their own life – that wasn’t easy,” he said. “Or when someone died some weeks or months before, that could be quite unpleasant. But the only thing that really got to me was when it was the death of a child.”

Steve became a qualified funeral director in 1989, through the National Association of Funeral Directors, and worked in the business for eight years. He changed course and worked for the NHS from 1996 till 2008, assisting with MRI and CT scans at Princess Margaret Hospital, then the Great Western Hospital, before returning to the funeral business.

“I was a freelance working for four different funeral directors, then in 2013, I was asked to join a company full-time,” he said.

Steve opened a new branch of G&L Evans funeral directors in Covingham, where he worked until 2016, when ill health obliged him to retire. “Funeral directors are called undertakers because they undertake to organise the funeral,” he explained. “They are there to take the stress and to deal with any problems, and to make funeral arrangements as easy as they can for the bereaved.

“They know all the legislation and official forms, what can be done, and where, and they look after the deceased. They will remove the body to a chapel of rest, and are available for this 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

He said: “You have to make yourself partially detached, so there’s no sitting there in tears with the family, but you have to be empathetic, as you couldn’t do your job properly if you weren’t aware what people were feeling. It’s a difficult balance.”

Diplomacy is also a necessity as families do not always agree on the arrangements and emotions will be highly charged, and the undertakers try and create a relaxed environment.

“All arranging rooms look like someone’s living room, and while we always wear a suit, for a meeting we might be in shirt sleeves, so we don’t look too official,” he explained. “It’s important to think of simple things, like asking if we can call people by their first names and offering cups of tea.”

Despite its challenges, Steve said the job could be very satisfying too.

“When you get back to the office after a funeral, and you can think, that went well, just right – or when you get a thank you letter from people, that’s really quite heart-warming, because you have taken a load from their shoulders and they are appreciative.”

In a bid to overcome the nervousness many people feel about undertakers, Steve had an open-door policy, inviting people to drop in and ask questions. They also had Macmillan coffee mornings.

“We wanted to show there was nothing weird or strange about us, nothing hidden,” he said. “People could be shown around – if no clients were in.”

Funerals have become more inventive over recent years – he oversaw one that used a helicopter as a hearse, and vehicles such as a Morris Traveller and VW campers are options, instead of the traditional black hearse. Some people are choosing to video funerals too – so faraway friends and members of the family can be part of the proceedings.

“There are crematoriums now that will do a livestream of a ceremony, and will record videos for those who are unable to attend,” he said.

Now retired, Steve still offers advice and help to family and friends, and he has recently done a counselling course about bereavement. He is keen to enjoy life - his wife Brenda has recently come through a serious illness and the couple enjoy walking, time with friends, and holidays together.

And when the time comes, what manner of funeral would Steve like?

“Oh, a Viking pyre! A burning boat – on Coate Water!” he joked. “Actually, I am very happy to leave all the decisions about that to my wife.”