I had an interesting encounter with a funeral director recently which inspired this blog post. I have the absolute privilege of working in one of the most diverse and multicultural areas of the country. We have communities based in East London from all over the world with an amazing array of different cultural and religious beliefs. In this I stay open minded and as welcoming as I can, I apologise when I make assumptions or get things wrong. Most importantly to me a lot of the time, I ask people how to pronounce the names of their deceased. Sometimes I can try, or I have heard a name previously which I can infer from. However, the easiest thing to do is ask when not sure. What provoked me this week was something I have had happen to me on multiple occasions. Some may see it as harmless, and just a bit of banter but I fail to see how implying anything as such can be banter and I certainly do not agree with the sentiment. I, of course, won’t be naming names, or companies or any such, but I would ask any of you to consider what you say and how it can be interpreted.
I pronounced a name out loud to the funeral director who then replied with ‘There’s a nice cockney name’. Without thinking I responded with a ‘Nothing like a bit of racism first thing in the morning’ which sailed immediately over their head. Now, I’ve heard utterances like that many times before, how it’s a nice English name or an attempt at a pronunciation which is mocking of the original name. How people cannot see that they are actually being hugely offensive in these sentiments I will never know, but also I will shamefully admit I don’t always pick them up on it as I have done on some occasions. However, on this occasion this then led to them seeing my name written down and saying it out loud in response which they followed with an assumption of my origin based upon it. Which is utterly ridiculous, and I’m about to explain why.
Norburn. It’s an unusual name to say the least, there’s not many of us about and I think I’m correct in saying there is only one other Gemma Norburn in the world. My Norburn immediate family consists of only three people, my Mum by marriage, my Dad and my Nan. My aunt changed her name when she married and my Grandad died when I was around ten. You might be surprised to read that my Grandad started that name, and it may well end with me. I haven’t changed my name at marriage, but any children I may have wouldn’t take it. So it’s name that’s spanned three generations and been used by only six people. How can you possibly make any assumptions about me based upon my name in that context?
My Great-Grandmother, my paternal Grandad’s mother, was called Mary Green. She met a man who she believed she would marry, his name was Leslie Fountain. Mary discovered she was pregnant and told Leslie, who then admitted he was engaged to another woman and could not help her. Mary went to live with her sister, and gave birth to my Grandad who was given to the care of the Foundling Hospital, now knows as Coram. The Foundling was started by Thomas Coram with the composer George Frideric Handel and the artist William Hogarth in 1739 and still exists today to help children and families. Mary named my Grandad Gerald Leslie Green, however it was the practice of the Foundling to give the children new names to separate them from their pasts. My grandad was then called Charles (Charlie) Norburn and he never knew this story about his early life, it wasn’t until after his death that my Dad contacted the Coram charity to find out all about it. We were given the stack of letters that Mary wrote to them enquiring after her child, quoting a reference number each time that she had been given to identify him. My Dad is very good at genealogy and has been able to find out that Mary married later, when the letters stopped arriving and went on to have other children.
Since I got married I’ve been asked why I didn’t change my name, and there’s a few answers to that. Total laziness is one of them, by not changing my name I haven’t had to do any of the boring admin work that comes alongside and I’m quite pleased about that. Of a huge importance to me is the very idea that my surname dies with me. Quite simply, I’m not ready to let it go. My name has history, it has a story, it has human emotions and turmoil and struggle which I associate with it. Family was of huge importance to my Grandad and I’m a part of that family, I wear my name with pride. Although I must admit I have toyed with the idea of changing my name to Green just so I can double barrel to Green-Brown.
So please do think before you make any assumptions about someone based on their name. Names are wonderful. They are one thing that we own, even remaining in death. Memories and love will be remembered with that name and this is precious.