An Act of Love: How to Have the Funeral That is Right for You.
A guest blog by Rosalie Kuyvenhoven
A precious gift
My father died at the age of 56. Although his death was unexpected he was fully prepared. A script for his funeral, including music, texts and who had to do what, was ready to be delivered. He had selected the funeral director and the venue where the funeral service had to take place. Although he was a minister, he was clear it shouldn’t happen in a church. He chose the theatre of the university where he worked.
For my dad, planning his death was part of his life.
When he died we were in shock and completely overwhelmed by grief, disbelief and all the practicalities that had to be sorted out. The script my father had written for his funeral was his last and, as we learned along the way, tremendously precious gift to us. Beyond life, he guided and held us in the difficult days from his death leading on to the funeral. His clear and detailed instructions reassured us that we were giving him the farewell he wanted.
It was the most profound experience for all who attended. We carried his coffin, which was decorated with his favourite, home-grown flowers. We presented art works made by my sister. My brothers and younger sister played live music. My mother read a few poems and I read words he had selected for the occasion.
His funeral was a life-defining experience and it would be pivotal in my decision to become an officiant of person-centred ceremonies.
It made me realise how important a good funeral is, that there are so many options beyond a traditional funeral and how giving ownership to the people involved can make a huge positive difference in how they experience a dreadful day.
We have outsourced death
In our culture, death is seen as a medical failure, rather than a natural part of life. We don’t talk about death in our daily lives, we don’t research end-of-life and funeral options, and we hardly engage with dead bodies.
We outsource the care and last farewells of the people most dear to us to funeral professionals whose services, in many cases, are product driven rather than based on the wishes and needs of the people involved. And when happens, we are not prepared. Often we are guided by assumptions on what a funeral should look like and take what the funeral professionals sell us for granted.
What if we would own the process?
Arranging a funeral for someone dear to you is the last thing you can do for them. It’s an act of love.
What if you could take the time that’s needed to explore options, to find ways to express your grief in a way that feels right for you and to honour the life lived of the person who has died in a truthful and meaningful way? How would this make a difference?
A modern, person-centred funeral does not mean it cannot follow a traditional structure. For some, a religious ceremony led by a faith leader will be the right option. Others prefer a no frills funeral in a traditional crematorium chapel, or a simple graveside committal. All these options allow for personalised elements to be included.
A modern, person-centred funeral is not just about choosing a special coffin, an unusual hearse or ask people to dress up in particular clothes. These are special touches and examples of how to personalise a funeral and it’s a good thing that the range of these options is growing.
Nowadays there are many beautiful alternatives available to the traditional wooden coffin and the black hearse and it’s important to realise that, if it doesn’t feel right, a family does not need to buy what the funeral director sells them as part of their standard packages.
However, the real difference is not always reflected in the things you can see and touch. Funeral innovation is about creating a connection with the people involved on practical, cognitive, emotional and spiritual levels to help them find the creative expressions that are meaningful for them.
It’s about creating a structure, finding words and crafting rituals that give space to the different emotions and thoughts that come with the death of someone.
It’s finding a delicate balance between grieving a loss, paying tribute to a life and find ways to continue the bond with the person who has died.
It’s about finding stories that reflect how someone has touched the lives of the people around them.
It’s about taking control of the process, for as much or as little the family feels comfortable with.
It’s about letting go of set structures and assumptions and think about what feels right and appropriate for the person who has died, the people involved and the particular circumstances.
Examples of person-centred funerals
Below a few examples of how people made their own choices in arranging a person-centred funeral service:
A family wanted to have the funeral ceremony for their mother in her own garden. The coffin was put in the shade of the trees that had provided shelter during her life. We read from her favourite book, listened to music she loved and decorated the coffin with ivy from the garden.
The funeral service of a Chinese man was attended by a mixed group of people. Some of his family members and friends did not speak English. Instead of a spoken eulogy the family created a slideshow with photos and his favourite music as a tribute to his life.
For a lady of a mixed cultural and religious heritage we added elements to the service to reflect this. Her stepmother lit a candle; her sister read a poem in her mother tongue; we said the Lord’s Prayer and a friend recited a Jewish prayer.
At the start of a funeral service for a lady who was a gifted quilt maker the family draped one of her handmade quilts over the coffin. The quilt provided a fitting metaphor for how she has woven threads and patterns into the lives of everyone who knew her, something we used as a theme in the service.
Where to start?
Most people won’t have much experience in organising a funeral and it can be difficult to know where to start.
A few tips:
- Start thinking about funeral options today. Have a conversation with the people dear to you about funeral wishes, of talk to someone who recently arranged a funeral and their experiences.
- Take small steps. Starting a conversation about your funeral or the funeral of someone dear to you may not be easy. Not everyone will feel comfortable doing this and it’s important to do as much and as little as feels right. You may want to start talking about it from a less personal point of view, for example by reflecting upon a funeral you have been to and what you liked or did not like about it. There are card games such as ‘Death Deck’ available that help facilitate the conversion about death and dying.
- Visit a Death Cafe. Death Cafe is a global movement, aimed at opening up the conversation about death and dying in an informal, relaxed setting.
- Talk to funeral directors, or contact a celebrant. A good funeral professional will listen to your questions, wishes and concerns, will share examples with you and will guide you in finding options that are right for you. Meet a variety of funeral professionals to get an idea of the different approaches, what they offer and how flexible they are in meeting your wishes.
- Search online for inspiration. Useful websites are:
- Read books or articles about person-centred funeral planning. The book ‘Funerals Your Way’ by Sarah Jones gives a comprehensive overview of options, and helps you think about your own funeral wishes.
Thinking about a funeral in life may not be for everyone. If you haven’t thought about options beforehand this doesn’t mean you can’t have a person-centred funeral.
It is sufficient to realise that the options are available and that, when you meet a funeral professional, you may expect them to approach you with empathy, expertise and an open mind. A good funeral professional will guide you in finding the options that meet your wishes, needs and budget.
A good funeral can be a positive experience in a very difficult and sad time. It can give comfort for the people involved to take an active role in giving the person who has died the funeral they would have wanted.
It may be the greatest gift you will ever give to the people you love most.
Rosalie Kuyvenhoven is an award-winning celebrant based in London. She creates and conducts person-centred funeral services and end-of-life ceremonies. People appreciate her respectful, sensitive, creative and warm approach. Born and bred in the Netherlands, she is an advocate of opening up the conversation about death and dying in a relaxed and open-minded way, as well as offering a modern and inclusive approach to funerals.
She has published articles on the future of funerals, alternative funeral venues, funerals for babies and stillborns, how to include children in funerals and dementia-friendly funerals.
Rosalie also co-facilitates a bereavement training for funeral professionals, hosts Death Cafes and facilitates Dementia Friends information sessions.
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Photo credits: Vincent Kuyvenhoven