We are living in an age of increasing life expectancy, with many previously fatal conditions now easily treated. Many of us now reach our 50s with no experience of a loved one dying, or knowledge of how to plan a funeral.
Yet death can still be talked about in the hushed tones that cancer once was. “Cancer used to be discussed in whispers and referred to as ‘the big C’. Similarly, people find it hard to use the D word,” says independent celebrant Judy Mansfield. “Instead we use euphemisms such as passed away, lost to us and fell asleep.”
She knows from her experience of discussing funerals with the bereaved that it’s a difficult conversation when a family has never talked about death and don’t know their relative’s wishes.
Dying Matters Awareness Week, using the hashtag #YODO (You Only Die Once), is urging people to change this state of affairs. But what are some of the decisions that have to be made?
Buy a funeral plan
Buying a funeral plan is a way to organise arrangements and make your wishes known, with the advantage that you pay for the funeral at current prices.
Just one call to the named funeral director sets the process under way, which will later prove to be a great benefit at a time of emotional pressure.
Type of funeral ceremony
One of the choices to be made when you take out a funeral plan is the type of ceremony you want. A religious funeral has its own format and traditional readings and music, but a civil funeral can include both religious (often The Lord’s Prayer, hymns, and a blessing) and secular content, and be led by family or a celebrant.
Humanist ceremonies have no religious element, and recently attracted criticism from Bel Mooney in the Daily Mail under the headline This trend for ‘fun’ funerals demeans the dead and those who mourn them.
Having conducted more than 100 funerals, from premature babies to a centenarian and every age between, Judy believes that different people grieve in different ways and should have the freedom to do so.
She says: “What is important is not necessarily adherence to tradition, but to honour each unique life, from a family playing violin and flute to ceremonies with hymns, classical and operatic arias, to those with rap, hip hop and heavy rock music.
“Mourners have come wearing black, in everyday clothes, in uniform, in Ascot hats, in football shirts and in rock-gig T-shirts. One old lady had been a party girl who loved the limelight, so we gave her a standing ovation as the coffin was brought in.”
Legal funeral requirements
It’s not generally known that there is no legal obligation to use a funeral director or hearse, or to have the body embalmed, and no law against being buried on your own land.
David Rutherford, who looked after his dying mother at home, believes that the way we leave life is just as important as how we live it. He contacted the Natural Death Centre for advice on keeping his mum’s body at home, buying a coffin, and transporting it to the crematorium.
He handled every aspect of her death and funeral himself, with help from his family. His brother led the procession into the chapel as he and his sons carried the coffin, and family contributed readings.
“It’s a profound experience to deal with it all yourself,” he says, “but you find the emotional strength from somewhere, and the paperwork is manageable.”
Natural burials or cremation
Having made decisions about the ceremony, there are choices to be made about what happens with your mortal remains. Natural burials are increasingly popular, either in grounds where a tree is planted, or in nature reserve grounds, where coffins and shrouds must be biodegradable and bodies not embalmed.
Ashes are often divided between close family members and put in the garden. Or they can be planted in the pot of a sapling, made into glass jewellery or put into a firework. Judy says she is going to go up in a pink and purple starburst.
The conversation about the funeral
Is it time you had the conversation with loved ones to make sure you get the send-off you want? As Judy says, “People don’t want to talk about death and think it’s morbid. But talking about it won’t make it happen any sooner.”
And it could save the living a great deal of time, distress and money, which is one of the best legacies you could leave.