When my friend found out I’d given up my career to become a funeral planner, his shock quickly turned into enthusiasm. “I know what your tagline can be,” he said. “Putting the fun into funerals”.
“Fun is the last thing I’m bringing to funerals,” I explained. “What I’m bringing to funerals isn’t fun, it’s meaning and relevance.”
I founded Poetic Endings – a creative funeral planning service – because I realised that most of the funerals happening today are not serving their purpose. What should a funeral do? Why do we even have them?
At its most simple, a funeral exists to help us acknowledge and accept the death of someone we love.
I’m often asked what a ‘good’ funeral could possibly look like. As a creative funeral planner, most people expect me to describe an extravagant party full of celebration, fireworks, fancy dress and fun. My answer usually surprises them.
This summer I spent some time observing funerals at the local crematorium, sometimes watching up to ten funerals a day. It was whilst perched on an uncomfortable wooden pew in the upper gallery that I had a glimpse into other people’s lives - how they lived and ultimately, how they died.
The best funeral I’ve ever observed – a funeral I’d consider to be a ‘good’ funeral - was no extravagant celebration. It was so understated, it barely felt like a funeral at all.
The funeral was in the height of summer, on one of the hottest days of the year. I watched as a silver car arrived at the crematorium with none of the pomp and splendour associated with so many funerals. No funeral directors dressed in black. No canes. No polished hearses. Just a simple willow coffin which was carried out of the back of the car, and taken into the chapel.
The person in the coffin was male, and his wife and daughter were the only mourners. That was all I knew.
His wife and daughter took seats at the front of the crematorium chapel, holding each other closely. For twenty minutes, Moon River played on repeat whilst they cried. As their allocated time at the crematorium came to an end, his wife went up to the podium and pressed the button which would close the curtains around the coffin and be the final goodbye she would say to her husband.
For me, this funeral did exactly what a funeral needs to do. The family did what they needed to do without feeling the pressure to have a traditional coffin, flowers and someone else’s words. I thought they were enormously brave in having the confidence to go against the norm and use an alternative funeral director who was prepared to cater to their needs.
This funeral wouldn’t work for everyone – it wasn’t supposed to - but the important thing is, it worked for this family, and that made it a good funeral.
A good funeral is a ritual designed to acknowledge and accept the death of a loved one, so the living can contemplate how they’re going to continue with their lives. A good funeral can be whatever you want it to be, not necessarily what the funeral director offers in their standard package. A good funeral is a set of meaningful rituals which is relevant to the life of the person who has died and the people left behind. A good funeral is profound in its ability to process, heal and transform grief. A good funeral isn’t for the dead, it’s for the living.
If you want, a funeral can be a celebration of life in the form of ‘the party of your life’. It can be a teary acknowledgement that a life has been tragically cut short. It can be loud and dramatic, or silent and still. It doesn’t need to be in a crematorium or a church; it can be wherever you want it to be. You don’t have to have black hearses and fancy limousines, coffin sprays and orders of service. You don’t even have to have a service, music, or poetry. There can be words or there can be no words; it’s whatever works for you.
It’s your funeral and there are no rules or pre-purchased packages that can dictate what it should and shouldn’t be.
So whilst you’re still alive, find out the alternative options and spend some time planning your funeral. Create something that’s an accurate reflection of who you are in life, so you can help your family process your death in a relevant and meaningful way.
It might not be fun, but it’s not supposed to be. But relevant and meaningful? That’s my definition of a good funeral.
Louise de Winter