What do I need to know about funerals and funeral directors?
The end of someone’s life has been thought significant by other family members or their society and marked by special procedures and ceremonies when dealing with their body since before recorded history. In some cases this may only have been done for people with a high status or with significant wealth. Graves can provide evidence of the customs of past cultures in a way that births and the forming of partnership relationships do not.
Some people believe that their current life is all there is and our existence does not continue in any way after death. Far more have some kind of belief in continued existence. This may be either as part of a recognised set of beliefs/named faith or not really knowing beyond a conviction that there must be more meaning to a life that what we can experience through our senses such as sight and touch.
Unless the format of the funeral and how the deceased person is cared for is determined by your faith, it is worth thinking about why you are having a funeral. This can be very helpful in making other decisions about the type of arrangements you make.
Some of the reasons people arrange a funeral are below. In most cases there will be several reasons you can identify as being relevant to your circumstances. You will see that while some reasons apply mostly to the deceased person, far more are about the living, those who are left behind who are affected by the death.
- The ceremony is an essential part of the journey of the person who has died to their afterlife
- In some faiths the ceremony ensures that the spirit of the dead person is able to rest quietly and not return and cause trouble for the living
- It helps mourners to understand that the person really has died and cannot return
- The funeral can give people a way to express their grief in a way that is acceptable within their culture
- A reminder of beliefs about death and an afterlife can bring comfort and hope to bereaved people
- A funeral allows people other than close family to express their grief and to demonstrate support and solidarity with the immediate next-of-kin
- It can help make sense of the life of the person who has died, especially if the death was untimely or in difficult circumstances
- It can allow an expression of gratitude for and a celebration of the life of the person who has died and their influence and achievements
- It allows the sharing of stories about the person who has died between different groups of people such as family, work colleagues and friends
- A funeral can also act as a reminder to the living that one day we will all die and challenge us that we need to make the most of the time we have.
It is essential to deal with the deceased person in a way that complies with the law. However there is no law that says it is essential to have any ceremony at all. A few people will arrange for someone to be buried or cremated without anyone attending and no ceremony. Some will choose to be present at a burial or cremation but have some time in quiet before the coffin is placed in the ground or they leave the crematorium.
Sometimes this decision is made for you by the faith of the person who has died. If you are not of the same faith as them, seek advice from their religious adviser. Some ethnic and cultural groups have a tradition of burial or cremation even if people may not remember how this came about.
Money may also be a factor in what you decide. Usually cremation is less expensive than burial but do check in the area where the funeral will take place. There can be exceptions. Also check whether a grave has already been purchased or if the person who died had a pre-paid funeral plan which usually gives information about burial or cremation.
Over 70% of the population of the UK are cremated but burial remain more common in rural areas where church graveyards may still have spaces. Most city church graveyards are closed to new burials.
Ask yourself if it will be important to you to have somewhere to visit to remember the person who has died. This might be somewhere you have scattered ashes, but many people still visit the cemetery on a regular basis and on special occasions e.g. a daughter may place her bridal bouquet on a parent’s grave.
If you and most of the affected family are settled in one part of the country, burial may be more appropriate than if everyone lives far away from one another or even overseas. Can the family afford the continuing cost of looking after the grave or perhaps, even more importantly, the cost of a headstone? Headstones are rarely regarded as an essential funeral expense and so have to be paid for by family members.
Opinions vary as to the exact nature of a green or eco-friendly burial. Probably the best idea is that it is a burial which is arranged with the least possible disturbance to nature and where the body and the container it is in with deteriorate completely naturally and within the shortest possible time.
There are specifically natural burial grounds which are usually woodland or meadows and where any planting is of trees and plants that grow naturally in the area and type of soil and to encourage wildlife. See www.naturaldeath.org.uk for links to natural burial grounds that meet the standards set by the Association of Natural Burial Grounds.
- How formal would you like the ceremony to be?
- Will the ceremony be faith based, secular or civil? A secular funeral has no religious content and people sometimes choose a humanist celebrant for this. A civil funeral is conducted by a civil celebrant exactly according to the preferences of then family and may include some religious elements if wanted.
- One ceremony at place of burial or cremation or a funeral followed by committal at the place of burial or cremation. An alternative is to have the burial or cremation first followed by a more celebration/thanksgiving style ceremony afterwards.
- If the person knew many people who may not be able to get to a funeral at relatively short notice you may want to have a memorial event later. This can be as well as or instead of a funeral.
- You will need to decide on whether you want the funeral director to supply cars as well as a hearse if you are not using another vehicle. There are many different styles of hearse including horse drawn, pink coloured, campervan style and motorbike. Or you may want to use a vehicle that reflects the life of the person who has died such as a tractor and trailer, delivery van, or pick-up truck.
- The more formal the funeral is to be, usually the more sombre the dress code. Usually navy and grey are acceptable as well as black unless ‘formal mourning dress’ is specified. If you want people to wear bright colours or a particular colour, make sure you let people know. People coming to a funeral will tend to be cautious in what they wear unless they know otherwise.
- It is often helpful to have one person in charge of the funeral even if they are not a professional and someone who can be relied upon not to become so emotional that they forget what is meant to happen next. If you have a limited time for the ceremony this is especially helpful, otherwise it is unkind to the next family who may be waiting outside the crematorium.
- ‘Eulogy’ – This is the formal name for the tribute about the person who has died. This will usually include a brief biography as well as a description of their character and some anecdotes and mention of any of their achievements. This can sometimes be difficult to put together but it is better to have a sense of a real person who is being mourned. If someone didn’t have many friends it is possible, for example, to say that someone was a very private person. Help from a professional can be very valuable and they will also know exactly how long a certain number of words will take. However it is also possible for a few people to share memories. Ask people to write these down so they can be checked before being read. The funeral is not the best time to revisit old family quarrels.
- Readings – There are a number of books which contain a wide variety of poetry and prose readings suitable for a funeral. Most bookshops will have one or two of these or, if you are using a professional, they may have some suggestions or be able to lend you a book to choose what seems most appropriate.
- Music – a huge variety of music is played at funerals. Many crematoria have an internet music system that allows almost any recording to be traced and played. If you want traditional or modern faith songs, then think about who will be present. If not many will know the words or music it may be better to have a recording played and people can join in if they want or just listen. It is also possible to have live music.
- Venue – this may be an obvious choice for your family if the person who died had a connection to a particular church. However you may find a village hall more suitable. The choice is perhaps wider if you are having a memorial style event as not all premises owners will be comfortable to have a funeral held. Also you need to think about access issues – both for the coffin and mourners who may be frail or disabled.
- Service sheets – these are very helpful if you want people to join in singing or in some of the words in a service. In a Christian service this is called liturgy when there are set words. Many funeral directors have access to web programmes that can print service sheets very quickly and they can usually include at least one photograph. This is often particularly appreciated by mourners who knew and were fond of the deceased person but who have no other photo of them.
- Social gathering afterwards – this is not essential but both immediate family and other mourners will usually appreciate at least very light refreshments before a long journey or a return to work. It creates a helpful ‘in-between’ space dividing the funeral from the return to the rest of the world that is not affected by the death of this individual. Whether you have this meeting together at home, a village hall, pub or hotel or a church if they have suitable premises is a matter of personal choice. If there are more than just a few people who the immediate family do not know well, you may feel uncomfortable having people back to a home. You may also have been having to start clearing the home of the person who died to avoid unnecessary rent payments, so this may not be practical.
- Catering – many venues will offer a choice of menus. Remember this is not usually regarded as an essential funeral cost so family will need to pick up the bill. If the premises are licensed most people will be comfortable paying for their own drinks if you pay for the food.
- Flowers – ‘family flowers only’ is now a common request but it is your choice. It is usual for the florist to deliver flowers to the funeral director. If it is the right season, hand-picked flowers from gardens can be very personal and meaningful tributes as can single stems of the same type or even different types of flowers. These could be placed on the coffin during the funeral.
- Gifts to charity – it is now common to invite mourners to donate to a charity in memory of the person who has died. This can also be done through memorial websites. If mourners are likely to be tax payers remember that the value of any gifts is significantly increased if you give people the opportunity to Gift Aid their donation.
- Other services such as photography/video/live web streaming. All of these are available if you would find them helpful but of course they will add to the cost of the funeral.