Last week I attended the funeral of a very close friend. She was a vivacious, popular lady with more friends than anyone I have ever known. Her funeral was representative of her life and personality: lavish, expensive, warm, generous and humorous. Her devoted family had taken her body home for three days before the funeral as her son, a florist, seeing things at the sharp end, didn’t want his cherished Mother shunted in and out of cold storage in some funereal warehouse hub. It was immensely touching.
Last month I went with an open mind to my first Humanist funeral. The deceased had been a devout atheist so it was fitting for him in spite of the family having Christian leanings. I arrived at the crematorium early having travelled almost two hundred miles on the morning of the funeral. It was the first service of the day so I went into the chapel to sit and be quiet, and reflect on the life of the deceased who had been kindness personified and very good to me. I was ushered out sharpish by the Humanist celebrant; this wasn’t the waiting room I was told.
The funeral was well attended, and the celebrant spent a good deal of the ceremony speaking about the basis of Humanism which, essentially, is non religious. There were no hymns, no music that anyone could sing to, obviously no prayers, no group participation in any shape or form. We, as a congregation of mourners, sat mute for the entire service. No touching of the coffin to say goodbye either; nothing.
When it was over, some 25 minutes later, the next batch of mourners were outside, ready for their own service so the conveyor belt ran smoothly not unlike the changes of passengers on a tube train. I left questioning my own values and what I want for my own funeral and, as is sometimes the case, an experience can just as often confirm what we don’t want as much as what we do. Seemingly, at the wake afterwards, it had a similar effect on others; the service which just didn’t fulfil our need to say our goodbyes to this lovely man.
So, with such recent experiences fresh in my mind, it was with great interest that I watched the first of three programmes of the BBC2 series Dead Good Job and it didn’t fail to produce fascinating television. Educational, poignant, and at times humorous going some way to explaining the various choices that we, as a nation, are making for our funerals; the Muslims with the simple, time honoured rituals and the need to be buried within 24 hours of death because only then can the soul start its journey; the Quicker Vicar with a motorbike and sidecar as a hearse conducting a rock biker’s funeral, the desperately touching terminally ill middle aged mother of two arranging her own funeral and a husband burying his dearly loved wife of forty years. Diverse and different; each with its own distinctive story.
Then, a day later, a timely report released by Sun Life on the Cost of Dying paying particular attention to funeral costs which have increased by a jaw dropping 71 percent in the last eight years; today the average funeral costs around £3,284. Simon Cox of Sun Life said “Debt, despair and distress are the common hallmarks of arranging a funeral and there is no light at the end of the tunnel to suggest funerals will become more affordable.”
As consumers there is a bewildering array of funerals available; almost any choice, no matter how seemingly wacky, is possible. From firework displays using the cremated ashes of the deceased, to boat trips commissioned specially for ash scattering, woodland burial in green pastures, woollen, rattan, and banana leaf coffins, and funeral directors offering themed funerals as we are told to celebrate the life of rather than mourn the loss of the deceased.
But there are those who do not want a funeral at all. These people are not religious, do not wish to line funeral directors’ pockets, nor have the traditional Victoriana paraphernalia in a church, nor a service of any description conducted by a stranger in a crematorium. So no hearse, no limousines, no flowers, no service; nothing. I have had more people tell me than I ever thought possible that this would be their choice and recently had a very interesting conversation with a gentleman who set up a business to answer this demand. Seemingly, he collects the deceased and delivers the ashes back to the families within days. Business, apparently, is booming. It was started with the view of keeping costs to a minimum in order to assist families who are financially challenged but has found that the largest sector of his business is from solicitors and doctors; not exactly professionals which are likely to be short of a bob or two. The savings made leaves a tidy kitty for a jolly good shindig to commemorate the deceased in the presence of the ashes.
Funerals should be unique, meaningful and representative of our lives, but we also need to take into account the comfort that a well thought out funeral can bring to the bereaved; what consoles one can be an anathema to another.
We all have very different needs which may or may not be fulfilled by any given funeral but with such a vast array of choices to make in terms of religious content, style, timing and expense, if there are no guidelines from the deceased in place, there is more than enough fuel for family fallouts over a funeral.
More reason then, is it not, to give some thought to your own.