About a decade ago, British citizens were asked to please stop illegally spreading their loved one’s ashes. Cremated remains were polluting waterways and damaging the fields of some of the country’s most-beloved soccer clubs. Some teams responded by opening memorial gardens near their grounds to stop the illegal dumping. But one team took things even further.
A Fan For Life
Reg Baker, Sr. was a born-and-bred West Londoner from a motley and unpretentious neighborhood called Shepherd’s Bush. Bands like The Who, The Clash and the Sex Pistols have their roots there. So does the underdog football club Queens Park Rangers. Since Reg Baker was young, he supported the team.
I met his sons, Colin and Reg Jr., at a pub near the club’s stadium, which is surrounded by public housing blocks. I asked Reg Jr., now 68, to tell me about what Queens Park Rangers meant to his Dad.
"Have you got four hours?" he laughs. "But he was always a QPR fan. He was always a pessimist. A complete pessimist — we was always going to lose the next game, without a doubt."
"If it was raining, he’d say, ‘Oh, the game’s gonna be postponed today," says Colin, who's 61.
But no matter what happened on or off the field, Reg Sr. always went to great lengths to support the club. Reg Jr. recalls one day in particular when his Dad’s loyalty showed.
"Him and his mates went up to Derby in the back of a furniture van to see an FA Cup game," Reg Jr. says.
Derby’s about three hours north of London — almost halfway to Scotland. And that’s far when your transit is for sofas, not people.
"I shouldn’t think it’s very happy coming back, 'cause we had lost 5–0," Reg Jr. laughs.
Reg Sr. always came prepared to cheer on QPR, blue sky or grey. Colin remembers another match.
"The semifinal against Birmingham City, which was on a freezing cold night in February 1967. And Dad made a flask of tea," he says.
'Blue Sky Or Grey'
Nothing could stop Reg Baker, Sr. from seeing the Rangers in action. Even as he pushed 90 years old, he was out in the stands.
"We used to love taking him down there, especially when he got older," Reg Jr. says. "When he got older, we managed to go down there with three or four generations of family, sometimes."
Reg, Sr. died in 2016 at almost 92. His children had him cremated. And they wanted his ashes to rest at his favorite place in the world: the Queens Park Rangers' stadium.
"My wife suggested to me that perhaps we might approach Rangers," Colin says. "I raised this with Reg and our sisters, and they were all very happy for me to take it forward."
"We hoped there might be something, but we didn’t know," Reg Jr. says.
Colin emailed the club, which connected him with volunteer Rangers chaplain Reverend Cameron Collington. As it turned out, Colin and Reg Jr. were in luck. Because at QPR’s Loftus Road Stadium, deceased fans can get season tickets — forever.
And their seats are right below the goal line.
Reverend Collington was happy to deliver the good news.
"Often people have phoned up and said, ‘Are the club really willing to do this?’ And we had the joy of confirming yes it was and that they could meet up with us," Collington says.
The Bakers were stunned. The interment and memorial service would be totally free. Their friends couldn’t believe it either.
"All the people I’d spoken to were surprised because they had never heard of it happening," Reg. Jr. says. "But they were really, really supportive and thought it was a great way to remember someone. We had to remember him, because he was such a great guy."
Before Reverend Collington and his friend, Reverend Bob Mayo, became the team’s chaplains 12 years ago, Queens Park Rangers held the occasional ashes service. Usually by special request.
But the chaplains turned the informal program into an official one. Today, fans from all over the world come to lower ashes into a hole under the Rangers’ home pitch. Collington and Mayo do it to take that passion of fandom ...
"That exuberance of life, and to allow that to spill over into death," Mayo says. "I remember an occasion where a wife had flown in from Canada with her husband’s ashes. Her memory of her husband is watching QPR on the internet at 3 o'clock in the morning."
He’s got lots more stories. Like this one.
"These two ladies were standing at loggerheads, and they’d both had intimate relationships with the man who died — they were both sleeping with him at the same time," Mayo remembers. "But they were bound together with this recognition that what he would want would have been to be buried at Queens Park Rangers."
Bob oversees a lot of memorial services. He knows that grief moves slowly. But in England, the process is often rushed.
"I have a frustration with the funeral industry," Mayo says. "As soon as you start the service, you’re on the clock. And the undertaker is looking at you, seeing you out."
Most English funeral homes and crematoriums have services scheduled every half hour. Not at QPR.
"T.S. Eliot has a phrase — the darkness of God, as in a theater with all the lights extinguished — and the stadium, when no one is there, is beautiful," Mayo says. "Beautiful and serene and quiet. And what brings people to us is we take time that they don’t have at the crematorium and they don’t have at the graveyard. It’s not hurried."
Remembering Reg Sr.
A year after Reg Sr. died, the Bakers came to Loftus Road with their Dad’s ashes. Reg Jr. and Colin came down with their wives, Rita and Annie, and their kids, their sisters and their families.
"So there was quite a large group of us," Colin says. "We were shown in first to where the club’s trophies are. Then we were taken into what we call the dressing room, or what in America I believe you call the locker room."
They walked around the pitch and took photos together in the dugout. In the privileged bits of the stadium normally reserved for players, they reminisced about their dad’s love for the team. Reverend Cameron Collington led a short pitchside ceremony before placing Reg Sr.’s ashes beneath the turf.
"There were some tears shed, I remember that," he says. "But they talked about stories of him, and some laughs were exchanged. Some funny things were said, in amongst the sadness of having lost him."
"I think we was all delighted at the end of it," Reg Jr. laughs. "Everyone thought, ‘What a great day that was. What a pity dad couldn’t have been with us.’ We was given all the time we needed — in fact, I had the feeling we could’ve stayed there all day if we wanted. That was really, really good."
For the Bakers, coming back to the stadium on match day is part of that ever-evolving process of grief.
"During a game, you’re immersed in the game — that’s what you’re there for," Reg Jr. says. "But at halftime or at quiet times, you know, you look along the goal line, you think, ‘Well, dad’s there, you know.’ And maybe the ball may take a funny turn and you wonder if it was him that’s just knocked it out of play, save a goal. It is a comfort to know that he is there with us."
Colin and Reg Jr. don’t know what they would have done with their dad’s ashes if it hadn’t been for QPR. Remembering him at the football club was the only thing that felt right.
Reg Jr. and Colin's cousin died a few months after Reg Sr. But the slightly more posh club their cousin had followed for half a century, just a few miles down the road? They didn’t offer an official memorial service.
"Why would all clubs not want to do it?" Reg Jr. asks. "If someone’s been a fan for 50 years and they’ve been prepared to take their money for 50 years and they have their support for 50 years, why would they not want to honor somebody in that way?"
Cameron Collington and Bob Mayo have just retired after more than 12 years with Queen’s Park Rangers. Katie Thornton's is a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow. Her multimedia project is called "Death in the Digital Age."
This segment aired on March 23, 2019.