good life, good death, good grief

The Reluctant Planner's Guide to Death and Dying

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.

Comments: 1

Helen Smith on April 21 2018 at 13:04

Excellent summary of what needs to be done to lighten the load on those nearest and dearest left behind. They have enough to contemplate with the grieving process. I have done all of the above already and am so relieved to have done so. It takes the pressure off me and away from my family. I just wish my husband was like minded but it is incredibly hard for some people to consider.

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