Trost founder Vanessa Boel (© Caroline Monthaye)
At the beginning of 2020, Vanessa Boel (44) said goodbye to the design, fashion and retail sector after many years. That commercial environment no longer gave her satisfaction. She lacked meaning and wanted to mean something to people on a different level. Boel trained and today with Trøst offers added value in the funeral world in an original way. “I get a lot of gratitude for what I do. People who don’t know me give me all their confidence: for me this is the best job there is.”
After studying visual arts at Sint-Lucas Ghent (today LUCA School of Arts), Vanessa Boel started working as a designer in the fashion and retail sector. “Styling, selecting fabrics, designing and making clothing: I loved doing it all and my various employers, including JBC and Veritas, gave me a lot of space to start projects with a sustainable and social approach. Yes, I’ve always had a sense of accomplishment and making a difference”, she says.
For years, Boel got a lot of satisfaction from her job, until around the age of forty – “maybe it was my midlife?” – began to wring. In her working environment, money, consumption and results were central. “I could no longer reconcile this with my personal pursuit of sustainability and added value. There was a feeling of emptiness and loss. The more I started to think, the clearer it became to me what really gives me satisfaction: achieving great things together, inspiring people and sharing positivity.”
The more I started to think, the clearer it became to me what really gives me satisfaction: achieving great things together, inspiring people and sharing positivity
Boel felt it was time to move in a different direction, but was nevertheless left with a lot of doubts. “I was in a golden cage with a good salary, a company car,… I also had great colleagues and my employer always gave me many opportunities,” she explains. However, a number of events accelerated everything. The death of her grandfather in 2019 made her realize that dying can also be something very beautiful. “He passed away peacefully in the residential care center where he stayed. I held him and felt his last energy. A special experience,” she says.
Then 2020 arrived. After a CEO change and several reorganisations at her employer, Boel was fired. Since she was already in doubt before but didn’t dare to take the step herself as a single mother, she considered this dismissal as a gift: she finally had time to think carefully about what she wanted to do. Shortly afterwards she was interviewed by her daughter – she has two, now 18 and 20 years old – for a school assignment. “She asked me how I felt about death, and what if I suddenly died? That was another turning point. I realized that as much as I love life and all the people around me, I was no longer afraid of dying. It used to be different, but I felt that fear was gone.”
It prompted her to delve into everything that has to do with death, mourning and farewell. An article about a funeral company in London taking a different approach further fueled her interest. Boel went to investigate and a new world opened up for her. After completing a funeral supervisor course in the Netherlands, she founded Trøst in September 2021.
“I just went for it. I didn’t have many financial reserves at the time, but I was convinced that I could really make a difference in the funeral industry. I am someone who likes to set up projects and take matters into my own hands, so I trusted that I would succeed”, says Boel, who surrounded himself with the right people right from the start.
It is a lesson she wants to pass on to other entrepreneurs: “Look for people who complement you. You can’t know everything or be good at everything. There is no shame in admitting that and asking for help from others. For example, I have already benefited a lot from Dutch colleagues who are already a long way ahead of us in Belgium. And Unizo, which I am affiliated with, is a sounding board for testing ideas and asking questions. I also often consult my spouse and friends who own their own businesses.”
‘Trøst’ is the Norwegian word for ‘comfort’. You pronounce it as ‘trust’, so the English ‘trust’ is also in it. The name perfectly reflects Trøst’s mission: to say goodbye, to die and to make mourning warmer and more meaningful. The entrepreneur wants to show that a funeral can also be different from what we are used to. “There is so much taboo around death and grief. People don’t like to talk about it and shield themselves from it. Everything should always be fun, but life doesn’t work that way, and that’s okay. It is better to embrace death and sorrow. There is a lot of beauty in it, if you open yourself to it.”
It is better to embrace death and sorrow. There is a lot of beauty in it, if you open yourself to it
In the traditional funeral sector, Boel sees too much gray and black, and often everything is formal, impersonal and with a lot of protocol. She offers a warm counterbalance to this with Trøst: “In life we are looking for beauty in every possible way – in our clothes, our home and so on – so why not say goodbye to a loved one?”
She is convinced that saying goodbye is extra comforting if it is done in a personal way. Because the next of kin are left with a warm feeling, they often need less aftercare and additional therapy. “The traditions are there and I am not against a traditional funeral, let that be clear. But I think it’s important to inform families that there are other options, because often they just don’t know this.”
No gray suit
Does she consider herself an undertaker, a term with a somewhat dusty and old-fashioned image? “I am certainly an entrepreneur in the funeral sector, but not a funeral director as most people know it. You will never see me go to people in a gray suit and with a straight face,” says the businesswoman with a wink.
“I prefer to call myself an innovative funeral director. Because that’s what I do: guiding people and following their path, at their pace. I organize the funeral from A to Z. Some people like to organize as much as possible themselves, while others outsource a lot. This doesn’t matter to Trøst: I’m flexible. The most important thing is that the family members feel supported practically and emotionally, that I can empower them and say goodbye to them in the most ideal way. Because of my great involvement and the freedom I offer, I make a difference,” explains Boel, who also organizes training courses, lectures and inspiration days on mourning and farewell.
Sustainability is very important to me. Isn’t it nice that you can give something back to the planet at the end of your life?
In her own words, she chooses as much as possible for local, sustainable and responsible in the products she uses – from a sustainable shroud to a vegetarian funeral meal – and in the partners she works with (e.g. grief therapists, producers of shrouds, florists, etc.). “Sustainability is very important to me. Isn’t it nice that you can still give something back to the planet at the end of your life?”
How do people get to Trøst, we would like to know from the manager. “Because of my previous work experience in fashion and retail, I know very well how marketing works and what you can do to bring your company, brand or service to the attention,” replies Boel. “I deliberately approach it differently because I want to keep the threshold as low as possible. Almost simultaneously with my start-up, I started communicating in all transparency via Instagram. Soon some followers came, I notice that many people are open to what I do. So I am very active on that and since last year there is also an extensive website with a lot of information. Together with the stickers on my bicycle, a printed TRØST guide and tickets, that is all I do in terms of marketing for the time being.”
Boel remembers her first customer like it was yesterday. “An Antwerp family who had referred a Dutch colleague to me. I found it extremely exciting and it was therefore accompanied by quite a bit of stress… But as soon as I entered the people’s home, I experienced a sea of peace. I gained a lot of confidence, it was a very nice first experience”, it sounds.
People who don’t know me allow me into an intimate setting and give me all their confidence: for me this is the most beautiful profession in the world
Trøst has now been around for a year and a half and Boel has already guided about thirty families. “Business is going well. I don’t take on too much work because I want to do everything in detail and with great care. Most of them come to me through-via. Satisfied customers are the best ambassadors,” she says.
Those ambassadors are not just young people, as Boel initially expected. “I myself was a bit shocked at how great the interest is: it goes beyond the target group I had envisaged. This shows that more and more people are looking for a unique, tailor-made farewell, that it doesn’t always have to be ‘by the book’. Unique does not mean that it has to be with lots of bells and whistles. Simple is also possible, as long as it is the way people want it,” she says.
What does the future hold for Trøst? “Of course I am ambitious, which is also logical as an entrepreneur. I dream of organizing training, workshops and consolation days on a larger scale. Maybe one day I will set up a Trøst house, where I bring people with different expertise together to offer comfort and create connection… If things continue to go well, I may eventually need an employee. In any case, it will be a challenge to keep the balance between growing and continuing to offer the personal guidance that sets Trøst apart.”
At the moment, the entrepreneur does not yet feel the need to grow strongly: she now mainly wants to gain experience and take every opportunity she gets. “I get a lot of satisfaction from the warmth that people give me and the added value that I can and am allowed to bring every day. I think it’s very nice to get into ‘real’ connection with people. At my first tutoring I was really overwhelmed by that, and it remains that way…”
“You know, as an employee you can be happy that you get a pat on the back once a year. People who don’t know me allow me into an intimate setting and give me all their confidence: for me this is the best profession in the world.”