Ever since John Peel’s favourite punk song, Teenage Kicks by The Undertones, was heard blasting out of St Edmundsbury Cathedral on the TV news back in 2004, the era of the designer funeral has been creeping up on us. The lyrics have since been carved onto his tombstone. More recently we saw George Melly’s cardboard coffin on its final journey, covered in the graffiti of his mourners’ final messages and accompanied by a marching jazz band made up of all of his old mates.
Increasingly, people are planning their own ‘final party’ before they die, especially, in this iPod play-list-for-every-occasion age, where music is concerned. For me, last year was a particularly bad one in terms of loss. I watched one cousin go into the flames (at an Anglican ceremony) accompanied by Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now and heard another cousin sing an Argentinian tango song to us at her own funeral. This was a non-religious service that she’d carefully planned down to the nibbles and dips, conducted in the crematorium chapel by a family friend.
The personal touch
If there are no specific directions in the will, arranging a suitable service may at first feel like an additional pressure. But according to The Natural Death Centre, ‘Almost all those who have tried it advocate looking after at least some aspects of the funeral of a friend or relative oneself, with the assistance of family and friends, rather than depending entirely on funeral directors.’
Churches are a lot more flexible than they used to be and most of the information you need is freely available online. ‘Not everyone knows that they have the right to a funeral in their parish church, even if they and the dead person have not been church-goers. Nor do practising Christians always realise that they can have a Communion service as part of the funeral,’ says the Church of England Anglican organisation. Guest vicars who perhaps have known the deceased at an earlier time in their lives can be invited from other parishes and live music and rock music can often be incorporated. For what to expect at the service, seewww.cofe.anglican.org.
The Roman Catholic Rite of Christian Burial is a mass. Only Catholics will be able to take communion but all mourners will be warmly welcomed and invited to go up for a blessing. A sung mass can be arranged for a later date.
The Natural Death Centre (www.naturaldeath.org.uk 0871 288 2098) is well-known for advising on every aspect of planning an environmentally-friendly funeral but they also provide valuable information on all types of funeral options.
At a time when local authorities are beginning to sell their crematoriums off to the larger funeral firms (nearly 9% are now in private hands) they closely monitor the charges and services provided. They list the crematoriums that allow 45 minute services, rather than the standard 30 minutes, and the few that allow 60 minutes. Perhaps, more importantly, they advise how to purchase extra time at a reduced price to avoid the ‘conveyor belt’, rushed feeling that some crematorium services can leave you with.
They also advise on how to keep the costs down. ‘Funeral directors are often not very keen to tell the public about their low end funerals. You may have to use the magic words “Simple funeral as specified in your funeral code” to be told their no frills low price (which, for example, probably includes a hearse but no following limousine).
You’ll also find advice on everything from cardboard coffins (almost every crematorium accepts them and there are currently seven models to choose from) to the legalities of burials in a woodland or at home. The Natural Death Handbook (£15.50) comes with a map of all the UK’s 200 natural burial sites.
If you do choose to use a funeral director, you’ll almost certainly be offered the option of a Humanist celebrant instead of a vicar or priest. ‘It’s simply more appropriate for those who neither lived according to religious principles, nor accepted religious views of life or death,’ says the British Humanist Association(www.humanism.org.uk/home 020 7079 3580).
‘A Humanist funeral or memorial ceremony recognises no “after-life”, but instead uniquely and affectionately celebrates the life of the person who has died. Proper tribute is paid to them, to the life they lived, the connections they made and have left behind. Nothing in a Humanist funeral or memorial ceremony should be offensive to those who are religious. It will focus sincerely and affectionately on the person who has died.’
The celebrant will visit you at home to discuss all the arrangements and will ask about the life of the deceased so that a short eulogy can be prepared. This can be written and read by a relative or close friend or by the celebrant if preferred. In place of prayers there may be a few minutes’ silence and a poem, chosen by you, or they can advise. They will ask for three pieces of music to be provided on CD. One is to be played as the mourners are assembling, one piece at the committal and one piece (often livelier) as the mourners are leaving the cemetery chapel. If you don’t know anybody who can download to CD from iTunes or are confused by the amount of choice available, www.funeral-music.co.uk sells a CD of appropriate music and has an MP3 jukebox where you can listen online. You can also get ideas here for readings and book live musicians.
Although space in a local cemetery should be available it may be worth considering a woodland burial as an environmentally friendly alternative.
Woodland burials can work out cheaper and there is a guarantee that the woodland burial grounds will remain as such in perpetuity, unlike most cemeteries that may be reused or developed.
Woodland Burials state that: ‘Our Woodlands of Remembrance provide a very positive way in which to put life back into the environment following a death. The planet needs more broadleaf trees to help stem the deterioration of our atmosphere. It also needs more habitats for our wildlife and insects and more undisturbed land for our rapidly disappearing flora and fauna’.
Woodland Burials offer both full interment and the interment of ashes after a cremation. Family and friends can choose either a religious or secular burial, making the service as formal or informal as they wish. A hardwood plaque inscribed with the deceased’s name and lifespan will mark the grave – this can be replaced when it biodegrades – and a native broadleaf tree will be planted.
‘Each Woodland of Remembrance is managed in accordance with a management scheme approved by Wildlife Trusts and the local authority to ensure its development for the benefit of all wildlife and nature,’ says Woodland Burials. They also offer unrestricted access for visitors so that loved ones can visit the woodland whenever they wish. See www.woodlandburials.co.uk for more information.
Six out of ten funerals are cremations. ‘Ashes can generally be scattered anywhere,’ says the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, ‘but if you wish to scatter ashes on private land you should get consent from the landowner. Although UK law allows ashes to be taken abroad, many countries have strict rules on the importation of ashes and it is important to check before travelling.’
They can be scattered in gardens of rest at the crematorium or buried in a small plot on which you can place an engraved stone. If the deceased has a special connection with a village or church from their past, you can get permission for them to be buried there. This could happen soon after the funeral or months later. You may need time to decide on what’s to be put on the stone, or until distant relatives and friends can schedule attendance. The funeral director will keep ashes for a certain time but after a month or so they may have to be kept by the family.
The Citizen’s Advice Bureau says that, ‘Although there is no law preventing burials on private land (including a garden) anyone wishing to do this should contact their local authority, who may issue a certificate confirming that the burial is lawful,’ Their ‘What To Do After A Death’ page (www.adviceguide.org.uk) includes advice on what to do in unusual circumstances such as if somebody dies abroad or without leaving enough funds to pay for a funeral. It also covers miscarriages and stillbirths, organ donations, coroners, inquests and other legalities.
Burial at Sea
Burial at sea can be arranged by the family though be aware there are only two places in the UK where this can be done: Newhaven, Sussex or The Needles in the Isle of Wight. When the death is registered, ask for a Coroner’s Out of England form. You can then get a free licence from DEFRA, the Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs (www.defra.gov.uk/ 08459 33 55 77). For the strict marine safety requirements, seewww.facingbereavement.co.uk.
The expansion of funeral options may seem daunting but it’s best to keep in mind what sort of person the deceased was and what you think they would have liked, ensuring whatever type of ceremony you choose it will be a celebration of your loved one’s life.