Planning your own funeral ahead of time can transform your experience
I was moved and heartened to read about the thoughtful, personal plans for the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral and the way he helped shape them. As a society we are starting to better understand how important it is to take control of your end-of-life choices where you can.
Planning ahead is responsible and emotionally healthy
So much around death and dying is out of our control but we do have the opportunity and power to shape a good deal of what happens when and after we die. And crucially, we have the opportunity to consider and be conscious of the impact of our choices on the people we love and the planet itself.
We have so much more freedom than most people realise
Very few people know how much freedom we have in the UK when it comes to funerals. To list a few examples: you can be buried in your back garden, you don’t need to be embalmed, you don’t need to use a funeral director at all. Coffins come in all materials and shapes and are not absolutely necessary — you can instead be wrapped in a shroud.
Hearses and limousines are smart and formal but for those who want something simpler or different, there are many alternatives and any vehicle long enough to carry the coffin can be used. There are VW campervan hearses, bicycle hearses and we have helped a number of people who wanted to use their own family car, to transport the coffin themselves.
These wide-ranging freedoms demonstrate how much is possible when we’re planning ahead for ourselves or those we love.
Many people are surprised to find out that a funeral can be whatever you need it to be.
Personal, modern, considerate and traditional go hand-in-hand
We know the Duke of Edinburgh requested a specially-modified Land Rover to transport his coffin at his funeral. An online book of condolence has been set up and the public have been asked to consider making a donation to charity instead of leaving floral tributes. Buckingham Palace has confirmed the plans ‘very much’ reflected the Duke of Edinburgh’s wishes.
In these choices we see an intention to honour and celebrate the individual life lived. There is a conscious effort to do societal good (in the donation to charity) and a wish not to tax the planet’s resources (in the request not to leave floral tributes).
These personal requests are held within the tradition, pomp and ceremony of a royal ceremonial funeral. Tradition can be hugely meaningful – the familiarity and structure give us great comfort and a sense of the right thing being done. As in life, none of us conform to being completely traditional or entirely modern. We are all different and there’s nothing stopping our funerals reflecting that glorious reality.
Redefine ‘a good send off’ – make sure it’s meaningful
We have this idea of ‘a good send off’ and the danger is that we unconsciously restrict the definition of a funeral to a set formula – a black hearse, a limousine or two, funeral flowers etc. If we’re not conscious about it, the funeral can turn into a performance where we act out what we think society expects us to do. And in doing this, we miss the chance to have a cathartic, meaningful, authentic experience as defined by us, our values, our own way of doing things.
Although the wooden coffin, black hearse, limousine formula may suit a proportion of people, it just isn’t healthy to restrict people to grieving in this way.
Planning ahead for ourselves, or with the people we love, can be an opportunity to step back and question what ‘a good send off’ might mean to us. And if we take some time to think about and design it, we’re much more likely to get that meaningful experience when we’re grieving and we need it.
Making sure the funeral serves its purpose, whatever that means to you
Our priorities in life are all different and so it follows that what one person would need from a funeral is not the same as the next person. Reflecting on, discussing and planning your funeral is a way to clarify for those left behind what you’d want and, just as importantly, what you wouldn’t want.
When we at Poppy’s have the privilege of working with someone before they die we often hear about their fears of what they don’t want to happen – I don’t want to be embalmed or I don’t want money unnecessarily spent. These conversations ahead of time can alleviate anxiety because we get to say – you don’t have to, you can pretty much do whatever you want. Similarly one person’s priorities will be wildly different to another’s. For one family this may mean planning for the women in the family to carry the coffin. For someone else it could be ensuring the religious and cultural customs are carried out perfectly.
Taking the opportunity to consider environmental impactlimit our impact on the planet when we die. Choosing environmentally-conscious coffins and vehicles can be key.
There are a growing number of environmentally-friendly choices for the body including natural burial, where the body is returned to the earth in the most natural way possible. Other new choices including natural organic reduction and alkaline hydrolysis, currently both available in the US, should be coming to our shores soon. These are more ecological alternatives to traditional burial and cremation.
You don’t have to do it on your own
The ease or difficulty of planning ahead can depend hugely on the circumstances. Planning ahead when everyone is fit and well can feel different – possibly even playful – because it’s not a pressing concern. Planning ahead when a death is expected can feel more emotionally challenging because we are facing the reality of the death.
Whatever position you are in, you could consider asking a friend to help you, you could gather a group together to plan collaboratively and of course you could ask a funeral director to help. It’s important to note that funeral directors traditionally consider funeral plans to be financial products they sell so if you do go down that route, be sure to be clear about whether you’re looking to have a funeral planning conversation or whether you want to make a purchase. They are not one and the same.
Why not get started and see where it takes you?
Starting to think about what you might want for yourself or those you love will not, as our fearful minds trick us, shorten our lives. Thinking about death and funerals does not make it happen. It is instead an opportunity to take some control, to feel empowered, to alleviate our anxieties so that when the time comes, friends and family know they are following your wishes. Once you realise what is possible, you can really shape your funeral to be something meaningful to you and those you love.