In life we are in death – you know that and recently death has come uncomfortably close again. I am struck by my recent travels in the shadow of death that we do not prepare well enough for it. Death is one of the great events of our life; like birth it is one of the elemental threads that holds all life together. We are born – we die. We have little say in the manner of our birth and it seems to me we have little to say in the manner of our death – disease, accident: mostly unplanned and usually unwanted.
But it seems to me we should have more say in the manner of our farewell. I touched on this in a previous blog about Endings being as Important as Beginnings. Recent experience has brought this home to me. Do NOT leave vague instructions about how you need to be seen off. Do NOT leave it to others.
In the wake of a sudden death your family and friends will not be sure what to do. A vast array of emotions will be within them – sadness, anger, regret, fear, betrayal, loss. It is very difficult to make sensible decisions at this time. Will you be able to honour the departed in an appropriate way, will you be true to them, their wishes? All death, no matter how expected – an aged person, someone in the final stages of a terminal disease – leave those behind in a state of shock and grief. Lessen their burden by planning your funeral with them. It may be macabre but I think it will help if your dying wishes about your farewell are discussed and understood before you shuffle off your mortal coil.
As well as a clear and explicit Will I suggest you ensure there is a clear and explicit funeral plan, and have the finances in place for it too. God knows there are enough companies out there willing to sell you insurance for such an event.
Here are some of the things you need to consider and make instructions about
- The casket – type and cost
- Burned or buried – who will carry your casket if buried? What will happen to your ashes after? If you want your ashes spread somewhere special by particular people make sure that is clear. Please make sure they do not sit in a drawer for nearly 25 years waiting to be freed!!
- Flowers – what type, how many and what configurations (allowing for seasonal variations)
- The formal notice for the newspapers – what do you want said about you to formally inform the world you have gone?
- Type of service – your religious affiliations may over-take here but if not into God you need to think hard about this
- Where – again religious belief will take this concern out of the equation but see what is possible. If we can get married in the garden or by the beach why can’t we be seen off there too?
- Songs/music – even in God’s sight you will be asked to choose. Think really hard about this – songs or pieces of music that represent you, parts of your life and will have an impact on your ‘audience’ are where you should be thinking.
- The after service celebration – you must have this. It gives people a chance to talk, to share their feelings and experiences of the departed and to give their personal condolences to the most bereaved. This can be as minimalistic as you want or as elaborate – be detailed here too and have it paid for, or accounted for in the Will.
- Elements of the service
- Who would you like to speak – including who will preside – your minister, a celebrant, a family member or trusted friend?
- Poems or extracts from texts you would like read – nominate the reader too. There will be nothing worse than listening to The Love-song of J Alfred Prufrock being murdered by a rubbish reading
- What aspects of your life do you want spoken about and high-lighted – this is important as you don’t want some cliché ridden precise of your life delivered by someone who barely knows you. But don’t make yourself into something you weren’t – a bit of well placed honesty and modesty is important here – some humour, a bit of light in the shadow?
- The order of events
- Something particular to you – a montage of your life playing on a screen somewhere, a key scene from a TV show or movie that epitomises you, some favourite pieces of music played by someone you know and love, an object that represents you sitting on your coffin??
You won’t please everyone you leave behind by being clear, you may offend them but if you were offensive in life, why not in death? Remember too, those left behind are free to farewell you as they wish too. Once the formalities of the funeral are over, once you have been formally seen off they can toast you as they wish, in their own way.
Thus, my father had three services. His quiet, minimalist funeral in an utterly neutral almost sterile environment; then two personal and unique little services. One at his beloved ‘farm’ in the place where his vines had been, on the banks of the Huon River on dusk, with his two children and one grandchild, toasted with Moet and party-pies, a suitable representation of the man: the former plumber with his refined tastes in clothing, culture and Tasmaniana as he enjoyed his second life as a librarian. Above us, as we shared memories of boating and fishing, a sea eagle soared. Was he there as the light faded on the river, completing one final fly past?
I said goodbye again with my ex-step mother, estranged for many years, but devastated at my father’s passing. She played John Denver as we stood on her deck on another beach and sipped Prosecco, shedding quiet tears, thanking him for bringing this odd assortment of people together – my sad step mother, my completely considerate step sister, her lovely husband, my gorgeous eldest daughter and myself: people who would not have known each other except for my father. Good comes from odd and strange circumstances and odd and difficult people. The light faded on the water and we wished him well on his way. (Images from personal collection)