Funeral Planning – what to include ?

Sometimes, when I am faced with a blank piece of paper, it’s a terrifying experience. As I sit here to write this month’s piece, I have decided to go with this. It’s how many of my families feel when we first meet.

If you don’t have a faith or life belief, how do you create ritual in a Secular world? How do we construct ceremonies that matter in this context?  Sadly, many of us are faced with these questions at a time when clear thought is, at best, elusive. The structuring of a funeral ceremony can feel out of reach, and this is where a good Funeral Director and Celebrant can be worth their weight in gold.

Aside from the logistics and timings of a funeral, there is the format of the ceremony itself. I support families to make the most appropriate decisions – what feels right for the deceased and for the family and close friends, and there are many elements we can incorporate to help personalise a service. I feel strongly that Funerals should be inclusive events in all our lives and the congregation should be part of the event, not merely voyeurs. I thought I might just list a few ideas to get you thinking.

Candle Lighting:

We spent over £90 million pounds on candles last year alone in the UK. It’s clearly a British habit, but one people rarely ask for in a ceremony. However, lighting candles is a lovely way to mark the opening of a service. Time permitting, I often suggest lighting candles within the ceremony, as we listen to music that was important to our loved one.

Music:

For some people, music is key to their lives, and incorporating live music into a funeral is a great way of adding light and shade to a ceremony. Singing together is also fantastic, if there are enough people to belt out a tune, and if the right song is picked. I can recall singing the Labi Sifre song – something inside so strong – at a service for a high profile disability rights campaigner, and it raised the roof.

Readings: poetry/ prose

As I sit with a family and I mention the word reading, I often get a totally blank look.I encourage people to talk about whether the deceased read a lot – what type of books; poetry or prose? Or perhaps the lyrics to a song they enjoyed.? Readings are a way of building structure of creating an arc within the ceremony. The first reading can be a good opportunity to set the tone of a service. Again, a good Celebrant armed with knowledge about the deceased is often in a better position to provide some ideas.

The Tribute:

Tributes can be written in many forms. A chronological approach is the most obvious way, but not always the most appropriate. Many people have lived through difficult childhoods or experienced challenging times, and we don’t always want to focus on those parts of our lives. In these cases approaching a tribute can seem daunting. However, aspects of a person’s character, their hobbies, their likes and dislikes can often steer a tribute.

Open Forums:

I first experienced an Open Forum within a Quaker ceremony. I loved the idea of being able to stand and speak if you wanted to. I began incorporating this element in my ceremonies, and where it is appropriate it works so well, not least because the focus in the room shifts to a conversation between ourselves – it encourages people to begin sharing their memories, and to feel involved. I usually suggest we find a couple of people we know will speak – and in my experience this encourages others to say their own brief tribute. Spontaneity is fine within a ceremony – you just have to plan it !

How to say Goodbye:

Ultimately, we all attend a funeral to say our goodbyes, and yet we often resist this moment. Curtains are left open or we don’t want to lower the coffin, and some families don’t attend the burial part of a service. Here, I return, again,  to “what is appropriate?” What would our loved one have wanted if they were here to tell us (if you already know what you want – please tell someone !)

I believe “The Goodbye” is crucial, it is a bookend to the beginning of a ceremony – the time where we stand together and acknowledge our loss. “The Goodbye” is why we are all here. Steal yourselves to face this moment. I do believe we benefit most when we truly face why we are holding a funeral ceremony.

March into Spring

March got off to a flying start with the Bristol Museum Death Fair. This was a fantastic event and one I was so proud to be involved with. Over 2500 people came through the doors that Saturday, which is amazing for an event about death, and the event was a showcase of some the most progressive Funeralcare professionals around.

There was a Death Cafe run by Bristol’s own Emma Edwards, a shroud demonstration by Divine Ceremony and Only With Love: an Oxford based Home Funeral Guide. Yuli Somme from Bellacouche came with her breathtakingly beautiful felt cocoons, and there were stalls with artist-crafted memorials and urns. The Natural Death Centre and also Final Fling, were on hand for advice. The atmosphere was fantastic, and it was a truly international event, one lady even flew in from Zurich. By the end of the day I was exhausted; totally talked out, but I felt euphoric, this event was a first for Divine Ceremony. I met so many people keen to find out more about what we do. The Museum curated a truly inspiring event and exhibition, and I take my hat off to the whole team for all their hard work.

In compete contrast to such a busy event, I also held my first family led Funeral Workshop. I have been running funeral workshops for a while, but never for a whole family. In this case there were 12 people, aged from 20 to 75 and they were connected by the family bond. At the start of the session, I asked them all whether they wanted to be buried or cremated. The results of the first poll were 8 for Cremation, 2 for Burial and 2 abstains. I took the poll twice more – in the middle of the workshop and again at the end. By the end, the results were swung completely the other way – 10 for Natural Burial and 1 for Cremation and 1 remained undecided.

I gave a talk on Advanced Decisions (formally known as the Living Will), and the workshop encompassed all the decisions that have to made after a death. We discussed all the options; Burial, Natural Burial or Cremation. Whether to use a coffin or a shroud. The role of music and poetry, and importantly, where to hold the ceremony. We explored the idea of a direct cremation; where the ceremony is held after the cremation, without the body of the deceased present.

As we broke for lunch, everyone called out a piece of music they wanted played at their funeral. One family member began to put all this into a list. The music was played as we ate soup and a sandwich together. The atmosphere was joyful – lots of laughter and an exchange of stories, family folklore and their differing opinions.

I can’t deny that there were some tears along the way; and this is understandable. It is a hard subject to broach. When you are young or have small children it is inconceivable that anything would ever happen to you – the small panics, the what if’s are feelings we usually push to the furthest parts of our minds. It is perhaps easier to imagine we are all immortal and some people found thisnharder than others. However, as the day drew to a close, someone brought out a bottle of champagne – and they made a toast to the family and their lives – however long they may be.

I left them all watching the rugby, laughing and joshing about who supported who. The air in the room was lighter. I like to think that’s because they had shared something together that day. When darker times arrive for this family they will be prepared. The memory of the day they all were brave enough to sit around the table, and discuss this most inevitable of events, will inform how they grieve and how they honour each other – but at that moment they put all that to one side, and they got on with cheering on their favourite team. Bravo ! … England won by the way …. Just saying.

Planning for the Future

Two Thousand and Sixteen. 2.0.1.6. I keep saying it in the hope that it will sound more familiar, but in truth I am not sure I am ready for it;  2015 whizzed by so fast,  so much has happened, and I don’t feel quite prepared to let it go yet !.

Alongside the launch of Divine Ceremony, I found  time in 2015 to focus on giving a number of talks, and the writing of my articles. I also met with the Department of Health to discuss future funeral needs, and I presided as Celebrant over 120 funerals. Each one so different, as are we all.

I have taken many traditional burials and cremations alongside Natural burials, ceremonies atop hill forts, and a truly memorable ceremony for a 94 year old lady who was buried in her garden. She had asked to be buried in the exact same spot she had buried her own mother some 40 years before; beneath the roses they had loving planted together. 40 years ago it was quite something to be buried in your own garden, and even today it requires some planning, yet it is all possible.

We know that each of us will most likely plan 3 funerals in our lifetimes, and yet in my experience we come to each moment largely unprepared – emotionally, spiritually and often financially.

Through my talks and writing, I want to encourage us all to think about the unthinkable. I can’t stress how much easier it is when the deceased has made plans for his/her own funeral beforehand. A huge pressure is taken from the family when they are able to say – “this is what She wanted”. It doesn’t lessen the grief, but it does allow us to also focus on the myriad of things that come up after someone has died.

I work with an increasing number of people who have decided to plan their own funeral. Mostly – but not always – ladies of a certain age, who may have been recently bereaved, and usually they have just re-written their will, which is an ideal time to focus on a funeral. We meet up and go through their thoughts, and then I drop off a document with the plan we have arrived at, and this folder is placed with their will.

Planning your funeral can be an emotional experience, but many people tell me they feel a huge sense of relief, knowing they have made preparations for their families and loved ones. It is often many years before those wishes need to be enacted, but it is then a huge help to have a plan in place.

The funeral industry is having to make changes – and welcome ones at that; we are asking for greener options, and more time for our ceremonies at Crematoria. I ordered many more cardboard coffins in 2015, and over the last year I have seen our wonderful City of Bristol dare to dance with Death, with a number of highly successful exhibitions on this, the most taboo of subjects.

It’s an irony that the one inevitable in life, is the one thing we are not able to control, and find hardest to discuss. The When and The How. Understandably, none of us want to dwell too much on either, but if we can steal ourselves – be brave enough to just peek behind the curtain, and make some choices now, we lay the foundations for a much easier time for those of us left behind.

Have I planned my own funeral? Yes, I have, well mostly – I just need to tweak the music….

Divine Launch

June 16th 2015 saw the launch of Divine Ceremony. It was a gorgeous early summer afternoon. My friend Lou and I decorated the little boat that would later be taking a beautiful willow coffin up harbour, to signal the launch of my business.

Amanda Raynor and colleagues from Wyldwood Willow in Usk arrived with the coffin, and there were gasps from the watching crowd, sipping their pints at The Cottage pub on the harbourside. We settled the coffin in the boat, and stood back to admire our handiwork. A number of people stopped to ask what on earth we were doing.

I had been worried that bringing a coffin up river might offend some people, but my fears were unfounded. Everyone remarked how beautiful the coffin was, and they were full of support for my venture. Gary, the skipper and owner of the good ship Floss, was dressed in his sunday best. Along with his dog Marley, Gary took the helm, as Amanda and I clambered into the boat, on route to M Shed for the opening ceremony.

What a beautiful way to arrive – the early evening sun was kissing the waterfront and Gary switched the engine off, allowing the  breeze to carry us upstream.

The main reason I had chosen to arrive in such a time honoured Bristol fashion was to honour my relatives and my family’s history on the water. However, it was also – and i am not ashamed to say – a slightly provocative act. I wanted people to see this beautiful coffin arrive. I want people to think about how they will arrive at their own funeral, and what their coffin will be like. It also happened to be slap bang in the middle of Bristol Big Green Week. Just 2 days before i had given a talk at Bristol Hub on Green Funerals, so this approach seemed the only way forward.

People lined up on the bridge waving, others stood outside the Arnolfini and along the dockside waiting for us to arrive. It was wonderful to see. The procession across Princes Bridge was quite something – it felt like a celebration and passers by were so supportive; clapping and smiling.

Once ensconced at MShed, the ceremony began. In many ways it was just how I would like my own funeral to be: lots of laughter, punctuated with beautiful poetry and dignified moments of reflection.

As I looked round the room at the people who had come to support my new venture, I felt a true sense of community. Not just my own close knit family and social circle, but also the wider funeral community I am lucky to be a part of. Those Coffin Makers, Celebrants, Artists and Memorial Artisans, who are there to help us in that difficult but all too inevitable time in our lives, when someone we have known and loved has died.

I am proud to say I am an Undertaker, proud to support my community. As my business has successfully taken its first, fledgling steps, I am so proud to say:  I am here Bristol – Divine Ceremony has arrived.

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The (not so) secret diary of a secular Celebrant

The phone rings. I answer and immediately wish we had bought a phone with caller ID. It’s my mother-in-law. She means well and is just concerned about me, she says. She’s worried I won’t be able to cope.  “Why give up a great career in Television to conduct funerals of all things; how will I deal with the grief day in day out and, more importantly what will she say to her friends ?!”. I attempt reassurance, but when I put the phone down I wonder who I am trying to reassure.

That was 8 years ago, and my Grandparents had recently died within 2 weeks of one another. Lost in grief, my family had been thrown into 2 funerals that could not have been less appropriate. I left the second funeral of my Grandad feeling empty, and more distraught than I had been before the funeral. I made a decision there and then that there had to be more to a funeral than 20 minutes of impersonal  hyperbole.

There are precious few regulations governing the way we say goodbye to our loved ones – anyone can take a funeral service if, like me, they are mad enough to want to do it. Personally, I was glad of the support and guidance gained through my training with the British Humanist Association, they did a great job, although I now operate independently.

Just last year I stood before 300 people to conduct the service of a 42 year old friend. I was shocked to find I was actually very nervous – even after 7 years in the job. How will I deal with this grief, a grief so intense I can almost touch it. It is also my grief.

As the coffin arrives, a wave of intense emotion spreads through the room. In silence, the pall bearers gingerly place the coffin on the tressels, and respectfully bow before taking their seats. And then we begin.

Initially, there’s time to acknowledge our grief, and the loss of this Special Man – a wonderful Husband, Father, Son, Brother, Friend and Colleague; I acknowledge the great shock we are all feeling at his loss. I talk about the importance of our grief as a mark of our love and respect, and then the extraordinary happens.

I am getting used to this now, it happens in every service I take, almost without exception. No amount of training ever prepared me for it – it’s what I call The Phenomena. As I begin the tribute, the grief begins to fade – it doesn’t disappear, rather it is put to one side – the air in the room feels lighter, it’s easier to breathe as we turn towards a celebration of life.

This is not to sweep away the importance or the depth of our grief, -rather it allows us to focus on the joy of having shared the same world as our Special Man.
As family, friends, and colleagues come up one by one to share their memories and readings with us all, I know he is with us. For that time, in that moment, we truly honour his life. As the children come with their friends and parents to tie ribbons onto his coffin, they too are part of something that’s important – they are not merely voyeurs of adult grief – they are an integral part of this  moment.

Tears of sadness mingle with wonderful memories of good times spent, and experiences shared. This is not to say that grief will not return or sadness never felt again. However, this process of a collective acknowledgement of loss, followed by a celebration of life, and a collective farewell is, in my opinion crucial to allow us to move on with our own lives.

As the ceremony draws to a close, the pall bearers come once again, and our Special Man leads us out, and then he is placed in the hearse. 300 people spontaneously clap and cheer as the car leaves our sight on route to the Crematorium.

Being a Celebrant is a tremendous experience. It is an extra-ordinary job, and I am very privileged to be doing this work. Each ceremony is different; each one represents a life. Not everyone will have 300 people at their ceremony, not everyone will be loved in the same way. We don’t all live a chocolate box life. I work with families  – whatever the circumstances – to help them create the most appropriate farewell. I help families hear the words they need to hear. Say the words they need to say – or I am their voice if they are not able to speak themselves.

Primarily what I offer is choice. There are, of course, wonderful vicars who take great religious ceremonies, but for those of us who live our lives in a secular world, an appropriate funeral is just as important.

The funeral industry is changing. It’s slow to change, but it’s happening. As more families request a secular ceremony, there are more celebrants responding to this need. You can choose from Humanist, Civil, Inter-faith and Independent Celebrants, although it is still often the case that the Funeral Arranger will steer you to their person of choice. Having the time to research this is preferable, although not always possible.

I meet families who are feeling very raw, shocked and feel totally at sea with all the decisions they are being asked to make. Additionally, there is often a pressure to “do the right thing”. A “good” funeral can’t change the situation, it can’t bring someone back. However, it can help us all to move forward with our lives, content in the knowledge we have truly honoured with feeling, and said goodbye with love and/ or respect.

As to my mother-in-Law, she’s mellowed over the years. I am sure she would still rather I worked “in Telly” – and she still can’t bring herself to “have the conversation” about her own funeral – but in those quiet moments after Sunday lunch she’ll ask, with genuine interest, if I’m busy and I know she is proud when I tell her I am.

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Being Brave

At the end of a recent dinner party at home, a good friend hugs me and tells me I am brave. I laugh, that very british laugh “get away with you” but inside I am quite surprised to find that yes, I do feel brave.

At 4am the following morning, I am almost in tears thinking about “being brave”. Did she mean downright foolish ? Cos that’s how i really feel ! After 7 years working as a Funeral Celebrant I am embarking on a new venture, as I set up as an Undertaker.

However, the fact is having taken over 1000 ceremonies over the last 7 years, I do feel qualified to talk death, funerals and bereavement, and in truth there is a gap out there and it’s becoming quite the void.

Funeral poverty is a big deal. Most of us will organise around 3 funerals in our lifetime. The average cost of a funeral today is somewhere in the region on £4k, and more in some parts of the country.  In times of austerity, how many of us can say we have that sort of cash hanging around in the event of a sudden or unexpected death in the family? What if, as in my family, two come at once?

As a Celebrant, I work with grieving families – often in deep shock and under pressure to fill out paperwork, cancel lifetime subscriptions, organise pension payments, direct debits – the list is endless – oh, and there is the funeral.

Who do we turn to for help? In most cases it is the local Funeral Director. They will discuss your options, but you will most likely get their plan of choice, based on what you can or cannot afford. We spend more time researching a holiday than we do an appropriate funeral, and as a result the ceremony is often little more than 20 minutes in the Crematorium, and a £4K bill.

I know it doesn’t have to be like that but, working solely as a celebrant, I have come to understand that I can’t change things or move things forward. Often basic choices like cremation or burial have already been made by the time I am involved.  We have a conveyor belt funeral system in place. After 7 years in the job, I have decided to branch out.

Divine Ceremony will be a new venture. Based from my home, I will help families create an appropriate ceremony at a cost they can afford – It says a lot that transparency is my USP.I want people to be able to come to me knowing what it will cost. I do not promote embalming, and I am passionate about a greener funeral process. If this sounds modern then we only need to look a little way back in time to realise that the current traditional funeral practices are “Modern”  – a Traditional Funeral is what I am talking about.

Our current Funeral practices have as much to do with one womans inability to deal with grief, as they do with economics. After her beloved Albert’s death, Queen Victoria sank into a deep grief. All the resulting masculine pomp and ceremony within the Funeral Industry as it has become, stemmed from this time. Victoria considered the funeral business an unseemly job for women to undertake. Later, the medical world began to see death as a failure of medicine, rather than a fact of life.

Before this time, it was the midwives who brought the babies into the world, it was the midwives who also laid out the dead. Death was an intrinsic part of our lives. People stayed home after death, families attended to their dead and began the important process of grief and mourning together – close to their loved ones.  Home Funerals were normal.

I want to give families back this choice. Working alongside some remarkable people who are trained as Death Doulas, or Spiritual Midwives, I want to be part of a movement to bring the funeral home. I follow in the footsteps of pioneers such as Paula Rainey Crofts from Heaven on Earth, Ru and Clare Callender from the Green Funeral Company, ARKA Funerals, and more recently Claire Turnham from Only with Love.

Over the last 7 years I have met some remarkable people working within the industry. Funeral Arrangers who care deeply for their clients, and Funeral Directors with a passion for providing sympathetic services and helping families achieve appropriate ceremonies.

There is space for us all, but there should be no space for the commercial services that view each death as a mark up. Those companies that charge extortionate rates to grieving families, who pay over the odds for a ceremony, that could be far more meaningful at half the price. That part of the industry is powerful, established and won’t thank me at all for saying any of this is a sad truth. To give you an example of their power, I telephoned a wholesale coffin company recently to ask for a brochure. I explained that I wish to pass on the cost of a coffin to the consumer –  with no mark up other than a small handling charge. They thought I was mad – in fact they were more strong in their view, which was that I should not and indeed cannot do this – or else risk the ire of the Funeral Industry, and those more powerful companies. Instead it was firmly suggested they would not wish to sell me those coffins at cost to pass on to the consumer – I must look elsewhere or go to one of the internet based companies that add a mark up that the Industry can bear. I shall go elsewhere.

Do I still feel brave …ask me again, in a few months, after the launch event on the 16th June,  when  I am not viewed as a benign celebrant anymore.

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Too much too young

A death in the family is difficult, but the death of a child often feels too much for a family to bear. When it comes as it did to my most recent family, totally out of the blue and shockingly unexpected, it is a terrible ordeal, and then they have the funeral to deal with.

Leo was 23, a music producer and father of a 4 year old son. He loved to surf and was a very popular fixture on the Welsh music scene. In truth, he did have a troubled childhood and carried with him the emotional scars. Perhaps that was a contributory factor to his hedonistic lifestyle – although perhaps no more than any of his friends, who mix their music with the easily purchased legal highs that the internet offers.

Mother’s Day saw Leo spend the day with family. The last day he would be together with them all. Flowers for Mum and hugs and cuddles with his nieces and nephews before he left home to visit a friend for a Sunday DJ session. A night out that would signal the abrupt end to his young life. Convulsions followed and a friend who perhaps could have done more but in panic did nothing instead. An A&E department that was already stretched by a bank holiday weekend of sunburns and gardening accidents, and further hampered by having no clue as to what the lad had ingested, accepted defeat. Legal highs often arrive in unmarked plastic bags. If something does go wrong this makes it almost impossible for a doctor to diagnose what is causing an adverse reaction. Tragically, Leo never woke up.

I was in the park with the kids and the dog when I got the call the following day. Leo’s Mum couldn’t cope with the initial meeting, so I met with his sister instead. A young mother herself, she was all but consumed with the grief for such a senseless loss of life. Her gorgeous brother – and only son of 4 children.

Over 200 young people in the chapel awaited Leo’s coffin. As Leo was brought in, the well of tears spilled over and the pain was deafening. Friends read poems, tributes read, and we listened to music he loved. It was all very touching and deeply moving.

I kept thinking of my own girls, their youthful innocence and carefree approach to life. My teenager is beginning to display natural and necessary tendencies to brush me aside, to need to do things her way, and as the ceremony progresses I find myself fighting my own tears. Can I keep her safe long enough to instill a real sense of the fragility of life, and to care enough about her own, to think before she buys something odd over the internet, or is persuaded to join iin on a peer activity ? Have I done enough ?

The true sadness of this story is best seen in context, and the reason for telling this particular story. In the last 3 years I have taken 6 ceremonies for young men between the ages of 17 and 25, who all died as a result of a legal high misadventure.
The internet has given our youngsters a great deal, it’s a wonderful research tool, and a fantastic opportunity to connect with the rest of the world; an opportunity a pre-internet generation can only have dreamed of.

Yet, there is a real caution here – we need to keep talking to our children, and to our communities, and remain as constant and consistent as possible with our love and guidance. Denial is futile, as is holding constrictive boundaries that don’t allow our young adults to grow and make their own choices in life. The internet is not a benign tool, rather it is like the rest of the world; flawed, sometimes dangerous and a place where we should proceed with caution.

I have tried hard to end this article on a positive note, but in truth it’s difficult to find a positive spin – Leo may not be the last young person whose funeral ceremony I preside over. However, by shining a light on these challenging yet important issues, I hope the lives of beautiful young men like Leo will not have been in vain. This does not alter the pain of bereavement for those close to him, but he does leave us with a very strong message.