It was good to see the Italian family of coffee impresario Renato Bialetti housing his ashes in a totally appropriate coffee pot urn last week. The freedom to be creative and to add personal touches to funerals is something that the British are getting really good at too. In fact, our ability to organise alternative funerals is the envy of most of the world, as many other countries are strictly controlled by a combination of state law, church and industry. At the moment we are not restricted and are free to choose. Long may this continue.
Funerals are usually made up of two parts, the disposal – cremation or burial and the ceremony – with or without God. In modern times, it is becoming increasingly common to see some separation of the two. Like David Bowie and Lemmy, an unattended, prompt cremation or burial can take place followed by a considered memorial service or ceremony, possibly based around the disposal of the ashes at a later date. This gives family and friends time to be creative and arrange a get-together at a venue of their choice, getting away from what is considered by many to be the grim process of the crematoria conveyor-belt slot. These are called direct funerals and can save a lot of money.
Increasingly families in the UK are choosing to exercise other freedoms too. There is a growing home funeral movement where families are keeping their dead at home. After all this is what we used to do back in the day before the funeral industry sprang up. I spoke to one family last week who organised a burial within three days of their mum dying at home. They kept her cool, gently placed her in the coffin themselves and drove her to the cemetery. The daughter rang me subsequently to say how those two days had helped her come to terms with everything. How being in the presence of the body helped her to accept that “Elvis had left the building”, that it was a time rich and peaceful – a cathartic experience. “When my Dad died, they whisked him away in a plastic bag. It was so sudden and so shocking. This time, with Mum at home, it was lovely; gentle on us.” Families are increasingly booking cremations themselves too, although there is a bit more paperwork involved with this. Not all crematoria will play ball, as some are now owned by funeral directing companies.
The fact that you don’t have to use a funeral director comes as news to most people and in 17 years of talking families through the process I’ve never had anyone report regrets – quite the contrary. Obviously a direct-it-yourself funeral is not for everyone. What worries me is that often the public thinks that all funeral directors are much of a muchness. They are not. Families really need to know this and shop around. There are other choices that the public don’t always know they have. For example: you don’t have to have a coffin. There are now various beautiful and simple burial shrouds, some of which, with the addition of a charging board, are accepted by some crematoria. If you want a coffin, alternatives to the regular chipboard, veneered box are now mainstream and in all good undertakers’ catalogues. Many families choose to decorate the coffin, either in the days leading up to the funeral or as part of the ceremony. A plain cardboard coffin can be transformed into a message clad and flower festooned work of art. This can be especially helpful if there are bereaved young children who can become more accustomed to the coffin in the lead-up to the funeral.
You don’t have to transport the dead in a hearse. A lot of people hate the sight of the things and prefer the undertakers’ plain estate car. There are also alternatives for hire like a camper van hearse or a motorbike hearse. Some families want dad’s final journey to be in his work van. I have seen a coffin arrive at the cemetery in the back of a pickup surrounded by crates of beer, cheered on at the grave side. As long as the vehicle is safe and you do not expose a dead body on the public highway, you are not committing an offence.
Religious funerals are helpful and comforting for many. However, there are hundreds of funeral celebrants up and down the country who help fashion the most appropriate send-off for families who feel uncomfortable or inappropriately served by a religious farewell. These celebrants meet the family before the funeral and help pull together the most appropriate facts. They act like a master of ceremonies and offer support and ideas.
Choirs singing at the cemetery, grandchildren playing a recorder for granny, a band of pipers, fireworks, a champagne bar, butterfly releases – the possibilities are endless.
For some there is nothing. Maybe they outlived everyone or because they stipulated “no funeral, no fuss”. So whether it is simple or flamboyant, pretty much anything goes. My top tip: if your family refuses to talk about your demise, turn the tables on them. “so … if, God forbid, you go before me, what do you want?”