Some notes on planning your own funeral
Have you made the time to reflect on and plan for something that comes to us all?
It’s something most people don’t like to think about, let alone talk about.
I’m talking about the ‘D’ word. Death.
In 2013 the organisation ‘Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief’ came up with the idea of ‘Before I Die’ walls. The idea was to have a public space where people could write up their responses to the line ‘before I die I want to...’ I liked the idea and posted it on my Ecospirit Facebook page and my personal one. Out of over 200 Friends I only got 3 responses. Now, cutie photos of my newly-hatched ducklings got about 50 likes and comments. Something is wrong here – which is the most worthy of thought and is important in the long run?
Making a will and recording your wishes for an appropriate funeral is something everyone should do. Otherwise how can you be sure that your nearest and dearest will know and follow your wishes for an appropriate send-off if you haven’t recorded these before you die?
Death, especially your own, is an emotive subject. Confronting and making funeral plans requires courage. It also requires an ability to get through the emotional haze surrounding death and then to start making rational decisions. For this reason it is best to start making plans when you are in good health so that you are more focused.
So what is the function of a funeral?
It is to commemorate and/or celebrate the life of the deceased
(If required) to perform any religious rites that is appropriate or necessary to bless them and to ease their journey to the Otherworld or afterlife.
To serve as a comfort to those left behind.
This means that a funeral may have to be a compromise between your beliefs and the beliefs and wishes of your family. Funeral service plans are a declaration of your wishes which means that your executors or family are under no legal obligation to carry them out. So if you put something outrageous on your Funeral Plan such as that you wish to be cremated on a funeral pyre with everyone dancing ‘skyclad’ around it your family will be likely to be uncomfortable and it is unlikely to occur. So you’re much more likely to get your wishes if you’re sensitive and introduce some element of compromise about what your funeral service contains.
A typical service contains the following:
Words of welcome, setting the scene as to why we’re here, welcoming the ‘congregation’
A eulogy or life story of the deceased
Appropriate readings, poetry, music
(Optional) religious contents such as prayers or blessings
Committal – or the disposal of the body by cremation or burial
Closing words – which are usually more upbeat and offering some comfort to the mourners
These headings give a starting point for making notes – which could be kept with your will or other legal documents such as birth and marriage certificates ready to be referred to when the time comes.
The first thing you need to consider is how your remains are doing to be disposed of and what help your family or friends will need for this. The easiest and conventional route is to employ a funeral director but this is not essential. The Natural Death Centre and ‘Good Life Good Death Good Grief’ both have informative websites and publications on everything from a totally DIY funeral to eco coffins and green burial sites. They also give some information on other practicalities such as preparing and storing bodies which some may find distasteful – but is part of the process and needs to be considered. You may have romantic ideas of lying in state at home in your finery until the day of the funeral but this may not be the most considerate thing to do to your family who may be distressed when nature takes its inevitable course on your remains.
Even with a largely DIY funeral the ‘professionals’ will usually have to be consulted at some point. During my training and work as a Civil Funeral Celebrant* I have worked with a variety of funeral directors, crematorium staff and others. Their approach varies widely and it is always worth ‘shopping around’ when drawing up your plans to find those that will be more likely to carry out your wishes. Without exception, the funeral staff I have come across are extraordinarily compassionate people who take a deep care in everything they do. But there can be constraints in carrying out your wishes. For example, many crematoria were built at a time when Christianity was about the only religion practiced in Scotland and many have crosses indelibly fixed in place. So if you have other beliefs and find this offensive check which crematoria can have these removed or covered in the time available to them. Many have a strict timescale for getting mourners in, a funeral conducted, and then getting them to leave before the next one arrives and may not have the time to do this. However, they may be able to help in other ways. If your funeral is the first or last in the day they may be more flexible. Remember you’re not their only client and that you’re far more likely to get the result you want if you ask nicely for it and don’t demand it. You could also just use the crematorium just for the committal and have the funeral ceremony elsewhere. And as a last resort remember that the funeral isn’t just for you and that a cross may provide comfort to some who have come along to mourn your passing.
The funeral ceremony itself can be led by anyone – a family member, friend, or by a professional Celebrant. It’s a choice that is an individual as you are. So take some time in thinking about this – who is most likely to be able to give you a suitable tribute without being so emotionally charged by the occasion that they crack up in the middle of it? A wobble in the voice is acceptable and shows you’re human. Becoming a blubbering wreck isn’t the done thing. A Celebrant needs to be able to impart comfort, not to be visibly in need of it! Speak to several people before making your decision.
An important part of any funeral is the eulogy or life story. Your family and friends will want to add some content – and talking about someone who has passed on is a valuable part of the healing process. As part of my work I have interviewed families who have been devastated by the unexpected loss of a loved one and who initially have been reticent about talking about them. But by the end of the interview shared stories have had them laughing together as well as crying together. But those being interviewed can only see part of the picture. A good eulogy draws on all aspects of your life and how your life appears from the outside may not be how you felt about events from the inside. Plus if you have only recently moved to an area or have no family making notes about the things that made an impact on your life can really help those conducting your funeral. Again, this can give an opportunity for ritual or reflection by putting your old life behind you and then asking for blessings upon the part of your life that is to come. Your story can be revisited year and year and new material added.
There is loads of information out there in books and on the ‘net about rituals and ceremonies that you can glean ideas from. But you should include within your notes what spirituality, if any, you feel most affinity to and what blessings or traditions you would like followed in your funeral service. You may even wish to write the ceremony yourself and leave this with your papers or you may also prefer to let someone else do the writing from your notes. As I said above, your family is under no obligation to follow your wishes to the letter. But some guidelines as to what you want – particularly if they are unfamiliar with your spiritual path – will certainly come in useful for them.
In brief, be realistic about what is appropriate and practical. It’s your day. You may no longer be around to enjoy it but it’s your last big chance to make a lasting impression.
If you would like to make a formal funeral plan and would like my help and advice in doing so then please do get in touch. I offer a service whereby I will consult with you and draft a ceremony that is yours to keep among your personal papers for when the time comes.
*A Civil Funeral is a funeral driven by the wishes, beliefs and values of the deceased and their family, not by the beliefs or ideology of the person conducting the funeral.