good life, good death, good grief

The Reluctant Planner's Guide to Death and Dying

Good Life Good Death Good Grief's Development Manager, Robert Peacock, wasn't well-prepared for death. In his first months in the role, he set that straight.

In this blog, he explains how he went about getting his affairs in order. He sought advice on what to do and when and how, and then did something about it, all the while hoping that none of it would be needed for some time yet. Read on and learn how easy it can be to take action yourself...

Planning a Funeral

Last time on the blog, I looked at getting my finances in order so that I could cover my end of life expenses and provide for dependants when I'm gone. Now that allows me to theoretically fund a funeral, here comes the “fun” part – planning my own funeral.

Like everything else on this blog, it’s not a theoretical exercise. Someone is going to need to know what to do when you die, and getting it recorded somewhere or at least making it known is a great kindness to them in the long run. You hear anecdotes of people being cremated only for the family to find out later they wanted to be buried. Or family members squabbling over what songs the deceased would have wanted to have played. And if you do want someone singing My Boy Lollipop by your graveside, now is the time to make that clear.

With this in mind, I spoke to Awdri Doyle, Funeral Director in Galashiels, for advice. She gave me “quite a big list” of things she would want to know from the family of the deceased. “Cremation or burial? Religious or non-religious? Traditional funeral, family-led funeral, eco-friendly funeral? Cultural beliefs or traditions to be considered, transport, music requests, floral tributes, obituary wording…”

It was more than I’d begun to think about. It was actually more than I particularly care about for my own funeral. Best start with the things I definitely know I want.

Personally, I am 100% sure I want to be buried. I like the sense of place. In my living years, I like to wander through cemeteries and “gravely read the stones,” to quote Morrissey. I’d like that for myself when I go. I also want something more than the usual “beloved son, brother, father etc.” as an inscription (presuming I am beloved – that’s for my family to decide). I’d like some pithy quote instead. I approve of the Spike Milligan “I told you I was ill” black humour route. But I’d also like something more spiritual. And I’ve often wondered about getting a QR code installed (or whatever alternative technology exists then) with a bit of biography on it. Hopefully, I’ve time to think on it awhile.

I’m less bothered where I’m buried. A well-kept cemetery in Edinburgh (where I live) or Bradford (where I was born) would be fine. If, by the time I die, I’ve built a connection with some other place, that would be fine too, but I want it to be somewhere near family and friends. I don’t want to be buried somewhere just because that’s where I expired.

I want everyone dressed in black. Bright colours or casual clothes are fine for some, but aren’t really for me. So none of this “he would want us to celebrate”. I don’t. No clapping, no happy music. I want people to mourn, the old-fashioned way with tears and hymns. And then to have a raucous, drunken wake, with lots of whisky and music and late-night storytelling. You’re allowed to thoroughly enjoy yourselves, as long as my spirit is part of proceedings.

But then ideas begin to run away with me. My mind is flitting on to all sorts of things – themed coffins, stunts at the funeral. What’s Awdri’s experience? Do people come out with wacky things that just aren’t appropriate?

“We have had unusual requests but nothing that has not been achievable. As long it is legal and respectful we will accommodate anything within our power.”

“How flexible can people be with funerals?” I ask.

“Some people can be very flexible. Some are not aware of all the options available to them. An informed choice is always the best decision. It is our job to present the options and therefore the onus is on us to be flexible with their requests. The main issue can be timings. i.e. if there are time constraints due to family member commitments, availability at a chosen venue, post mortem investigations or quite simply organising an appointment with the registrar.”

For me, the most important part of most occasions is the music. I’m fairly certain of what I want on that score. I’m Catholic, from Yorkshire, and live in Scotland, so nowt could be more fitting than a Scotsman singing a Yorkshire Catholic funeral song - Alasdair Roberts’ version of the Lyke Wake Dirge. It’s seven and a half minutes of warbly folk misery which will make the mourners curse I was ever alive for putting them through it. I also want the more uplifting Death Is Not The End by Bob Dylan. But not his version. This one by Nick Cave and friends, and if any of my circle want to sing a live version of it, taking a verse each, they can be my guest. Chuck in a few trad hymns – The Lord Is My Shepherd and Abide With Me - and I’ll be buried a happy man.

But what about all this stuff I don’t care about, like flowers and transport and so on? I’m not going to be noting that anywhere because it doesn’t matter to me. What advice would Awdri give families in that case, families who are unsure about the wishes of the deceased?

“If families are unsure of the deceased’s wishes, we advise them to go with their own thoughts. Do what is comfortable and comforting for them as well as considering financial constraints if any. A mixture of what the deceased may have liked as well as what the immediate family would like is all part of the healing process of grieving. Knowing that the best possible has been done does not necessarily mean spending the most amount of money.”

Unnecessary expense is something funeral poverty expert John Birrell cautions against too:

“Arranging a funeral for someone you love tempts you to buy more expensive items - a more expensive coffin (although it is either going to be burned or buried for ever more); fancy flower arrangements (but you can buy your own from the supermarket); extra cars (but taxis are much cheaper) and so on. Remember the cost of the funeral is not a measure of the depth of your love or friendship for the person who died.”

No, I certainly don’t want unreasonable expense on my account (penny-pinching Yorkshireman!) I have some thoughts on coffins though. Not wicker (don’t like it in life, so don’t want it in death), not cardboard (I used to pack boxes for a Saturday job). A mid-priced wooden option will do, dark wood please, if I’ve left enough money for it. No need for bells and whistles and the whole American-style casket though. Way too much for me. I’m very simple and trad.

And then I think that’s everything covered. Some nice words by way of eulogy would be a nice touch, but I won’t be holding out for them.

All that’s left is to leave this little funeral planning session with some final words from Awdri:

“We actively encourage people to record their funeral wishes whilst they are fit and well with a clear head. Sometimes the decisions we make in a crisis situation are not always the best/same as we may have done beforehand.”

Well, there you have it. I’m fit and well and I’ve got as clear a head as I ever do. The above is my wishes for my funeral. Nearest and dearest, do what you will with the rest, and raise a glass of whisky for me.

Financing a funeral

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

OK, I’ve decided on all the legal stuff – my will, my power of attorney, my advance directive. I’ve booked an appointment with the solicitor to get it all drawn up. Now onto the next thing on my planning ahead to-do list - finances.

There’s two aspects to consider.

Firstly, there’s the immediate impact of a death. Funerals can be expensive. There’s upfront costs you can’t avoid. The last thing you want is for loved ones to fall into financial hardship alongside their grief.

Secondly, for some people, there’s the ongoing impact of loss of an income. It is traumatic enough adjusting to life after the death of a loved one, but when that loved one is also a breadwinner on whom people rely, there is an extra unwelcome dimension.

The latter is something that affects me. My partner’s a self-employed painter and decorator, so would always have an income, but with a baby daughter as well, I don’t want to be leave either of them in financial dire straits if I suddenly died. It would definitely be helpful if I could fix up some life insurance. (There are other insurances to consider for the event I become too ill to work, but since this blog is about death, we will stick to that.)

As for the former, planning my funeral (the fun bit!) is coming later in this blog series, but I want to give some thought to the cash side of things now. Funeral poverty - the difficulties experienced by people with insufficient funds faced with paying the cost of a funeral - is a growing problem. Every week there seem to be more news articles about the rising costs of funerals.

So, I wanted to speak to a man who knows about these things - bereavement care specialist, John Birrell, until recently Chair of the Scottish Working Group on Funeral Poverty. In particular I wanted to know - what are we looking at in terms of funeral costs?

“According to the Royal London Building Society the average cost of a funeral in the UK last year was £3,784, with, on average, people taking debt of £1,680 to meet the costs. The average cost in Scotland was £3,535.”

That’s £3,500 I certainly don’t have sitting around, and I don't fancy saddling someone with £1,680 debt just to see me off this mortal coil. John continued with a breakdown of the figures:

“There are three main parts to the cost of a funeral.

The cost of burial or cremation. Most cemeteries, and around half the crematoria in Scotland are owned by local authorities. The costs are reviewed each year, and should be published on the Authority’s web site, or you can phone up and ask what the cost is. These prices vary depending on where you stay. Other crematoria are privately run but should give prices if you ask.

Second is the Funeral Director’s fees. These include their services - collecting the person’s body, preparing the body, supplying a coffin, arranging the burial or cremation, and the cost of a hearse and cars to the funeral.

Third, there are the ‘extras’ like flowers, printed hymn sheets, catering and venue hire, press notices etc. Your funeral director will arrange these for you if you wish - and add them to your bill.”

For other major life events like weddings, you might have been planning and saving for years. Deaths can be sudden, leaving the bereaved left to find large sums at short notice. A large chunk of that might need paying upfront, as John further explained:

“Many funeral directors will ask for a deposit before they will make the arrangements. This is normally equivalent to what they have to pay the local council for the burial or cremation, so it can be in the region of £1000. Finding that money at short notice is often difficult. Family and friends may be able to help. Credit Unions sometimes have schemes that can help with this also, or sometimes people borrow from the bank, or on a credit card. High street lenders will help, but often charge extremely high interest rates, so should be approached with care.”

So what can I do to save my loved ones this bother? Is it a matter of squirrelling money away somewhere and forgetting about it? Are there other things I can do?

“There are many products on the market like ‘funeral plans’, ‘over 60s insurance’ etc, but these need to be studied carefully. Some will not give you what you want; some may not be accepted by your chosen funeral director; some may have a list of items not covered. The best way is to discuss your funeral with a funeral director, and not be talked into buying a 'standard' plan unless it really covers what you want. Other saving schemes can be used to put money aside for a funeral such as a savings account or using a Credit Union - but you need to avoid withdrawing the money for something else!”

Increasingly, there are low cost providers coming in to the market offering a very stripped back service – a direct cremation with no ceremony for a low price – which then allows friends and family to memorialise that person at a time and place and in a manner of their choosing. There’s also a fallback if you’re in straitened circumstances:

“For those on certain benefits, The Department of Work and Pensions have a benefit, known as Funeral Payment. The application process is fairly complicated, but Citizens Advice Scotland or funeral directors will normally help. For those who qualify, the Funeral Payment will meet the cost of burial or cremation, and make a contribution of up to £700 towards the other costs.”

Citizens Advice Bureaux are a big help to people facing difficult times. As well as helping with applying for the funeral expenses assistance benefit, they can also help clients check if they are entitled to other benefits and help them with the application. They offer a range of guidance leaflets and advice pages too, some of which are listed below.

Armed with this info, I am now off to visit a popular insurance comparison site to sort out life cover. (There are also some comparison sites for funeral plans, but they’re not as established yet.) I am also finally going to reinstate that rainy day standing order to my savings account that I stopped many years ago and use that as my funeral fund. I think I can swap a couple of pints in the pub for a little piece of mind.

Further Info

Planning Your Own Funeral - Scottish Government advice booklet

Money Advice Service - Do you need life insurance?

Fair Funerals Campaign - What is funeral poverty?

Citizens Advice Scotland - public advice page on death and wills

Taking Control: Illness and Dying - checklists prepared by Nairn Citizens Advice Bureaux

Writing a Will

The third and final piece of the legal jigsaw to get sorted is my will.

This is the bit of end of life planning everyone thinks they understand. It means distant aunts leaving you millions, or spiteing the family and leaving it to the cats' home. For creative types, it means pre-recording a video setting out a series of tasks that need to be completed before relatives get their grubby mitts on the cash. At least, that's the myth-making about wills. The reality, no surprise to say, is somewhat more prosaic.

Currently, I'm intestate (i.e. I have no will) - a common situation, but far from ideal. I wasn't unduly worried by this as until recently, I had neither assets to dispose of, nor dependents. The laws on intestacy provide a hierarchy of relatives who have a claim on your estate, from parents, siblings, getting more remote before ending in the ultimate backstop - the Crown. (Yes, if there really is no-one for you to leave your assets to, the state gets it.) But with parents and sister surviving me, and on good terms, I wasn't worried where my meagre assets would end up.

It is messy and uncertain to leave it to intestacy rules though. It's very inadvisable. Many a family has ended up unexpectedly quarrelling over a loved one's assets. Far better to pre-empt this and get a will sorted.

In my particular case, I now have even more reason to get it sorted. I'm co-habiting, but not yet married. Couples who are not married or in a civil partnership have no automatic right to inherit. I would be leaving a mess there straight away.

More importantly still, I now have a four month old baby daughter. I need to make provision for her financially, and name a guardian for her in the event that both me and my partner die - a non-financial aspect of will-making that is sometimes forgotten.

My plan is to leave everything to my partner in the first instance, and if she pre-deceases me, leave everything to my daughter, or split it equally between my daughter and any other offspring I may have in future. Does this seem feasible? How would I put this into action? I again turn to David Borrowman, of Solicitors for Older People:

“Yes it absolutely is feasible, Robert. In fact, that is the commonest form of will. You don’t need to name children – you could say ‘such of my children as are in life at the time of my death’ which would bring in children born after the will was executed.”

Would it be possible to make Jo, my partner, the executor of the will, even if she's the sole beneficiary? Would I need a back-up? My baby daughter Bonnie obviously can't be executor...

“Yes,” says David. “You can be an executor and beneficiary in a will. Again that is very common. I think you are right to think of a ‘substitute’ executor – someone you can trust. Whilst any children are infants it can’t be them – it could be another family member for example. With any luck they may never be called upon. But you should think of your will as a living document – revisit it as your family develops and you may want to make changes – such as replacing the substitute executor you might choose now with your daughter who has become adult.”

That, I hope, safeguards the major part of my family's financial affairs. I may want to recognise other people in my will though, with specific gifts. I have a vague recollection it is possible to append a list of specific bequests to my will for my executor to carry though. The classic example of this being granny wanting to leave her antique clock/collection of porcelain/music box to a specific grandchild.

These things might not be major enough to write into the will, but it solves squabbles between family members to specify in advance who gets what. Have I remembered correctly?

“Another yes, Robert!” says David. “Many wills allow a handwritten document by the testator (the person making a will) to be followed by executor and commonly such documents list a series of small bequests to different people. This prevents wills becoming too unwieldy and of course the list can be updated from time to time by the testator without having to change the will”.

Then, I'd like to name my partner's sister as guardian for Bonnie if anything happens to the two of us. She lives round the corner, so it would save Bonnie being uprooted. Is that straightforward to do?

“Yes it is and it is common when people have young children. However, strictly speaking making such a provision in your will is not legally binding – you can’t ‘leave’ your children to others. Having said that, a statement by you to that effect would be a powerful statement of your wishes. It is difficult to see how that could be challenged unless clearly the provision you suggested was not in the best interests of the children.”

There are plenty more practical things I need to sort - my funeral wishes, life insurance, my digital legacy - which means plenty more blogging to come! But this puts me in a position to sit down and get the main legal documents sorted, which will be a weight off my mind.

Further Info

Citizens Advice Scotland - information on making a will

Law Society of Scotland - making a will guidance and video

Will Aid & Will Relief Scotland - charity will-making schemes

Inheritance Law in Scotland - in depth Scottish Government briefing [pdf]

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Before I die I want to ...
Bereavement Charter for Scotland