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Notes on Organising a Funeral

Friday, December 27th, 2013

In the last few years I’ve organised the funerals for my mother and my father. As I was organising these, it struck me that this is one of those things in life that you don’t get involved with in a casual way. On the whole, only a small number of people organise a particular funeral, and so it isn’t something that you have the experience of being involved in from the sidelines. When you have to do it, you have to do it, without much to draw on.

So, I thought that I would make a few notes on my experience for the benefit of others. Obviously, my experience is limited. I organised a couple of secular cremation-based funerals in England, and I appreciate that there are lots of variants, in particular that some religious traditions support the idea of funerals happening within a day or two of the death; what I have to say may be less relevant to such situations.

I will focus on the funeral organisation itself, here. There is a process before that of registering the death, which needs to happen within a few days of the death occurring. In both of the cases I’ve been involved with, the deaths have happened in hospital, so I received a lot of guidance from the hospital about this; I can’t really say anything useful about what happens to deaths outside hospitals. The important part of this for our purposes is that the registrar will give you some paperwork that you will need for organising the funeral: importantly, for cremation, a form from a doctor certifying that there are no battery-powered implants etc. remaining in the deceased.

The starting point for arranging a funeral is to contact a funeral director. I used Baguley Brothers, and I can highly recommend them within the Nottingham area. You can make this initial contact before registering the death, but the funeral can’t go ahead before the registration. I just waited until I had sorted out the registration process. I phoned them and made an appointment to go into their offices; I suggest that you allow a good couple of hours for this appointment, it will probably only take about 45 minutes but it isn’t something that you want to rush.

At the meeting with the funeral director, you will need to make a lot of decisions. There was no particular rush, and things could be deferred or changed at a later date; but, this is what I most wished I’d known before the meeting. In particular, you will need to decide:

  • Whether there will be a viewing of the deceased before the funeral itself. At my grandmother’s funeral a couple of decades ago, we did have this. It was held at the funeral directors building the morning before the funeral; her body was in its open coffin in a small chapel, and small family groups took it in turns to make a short visit. I found this creepy and didn’t have this at either of my parents’ funerals. I got the impression from talking to the funeral director that this practice is less common than it used to be.
  • What kind of coffin you want. You will be given a brochure with a wide range of coffins and caskets (there is some distinction between these two terms that I can’t remember), ranging from the simple to elaborate creations bedecked with carvings of Christ on the cross; the price range was similarly varied. I chose something fairly simple and traditional, it is a dizzying and complicated choice to make and my advice would be to decide in advance whether you want anything beyond a simple, traditional coffin, and if not to just stick with that.
  • Whilst we’re on the subject, all of these things like coffins come with a price list; usually, there are a range of glossy brochures and then a separate, printed price list. I found the conversation about the cost flowed fairly well, but you need to be prepared to think about budgets whilst also making these complicated decisions.
  • Another choice is that of flowers. You will be asked to choose some flowers, again from a substantial brochure. A useful question to ask is how the size of the floral arrangements is compared to the coffin itself; some of the brochures will usefully display pictures that show this. My impression is that you want to have one large arrangement of flowers from the core family, which will be placed on top of the coffin during the travel to the funeral; others will be placed around the coffin.
  • You need to decide about the journey to the funeral. Firstly, the practicalities of where you want the funeral procession to leave from and where to return to afterwards. Secondly, the vehicles involved. In my experience there was a default hearse and matching cars, but there was again a huge range of other choices from horse-drawn carriages to motorbike-drawn hearses and converted London buses for the mourners. The thing that is useful to decide in advance is how many people will travel in the “official” cars following the hearse; usually this is just the close family. If you have this number in mind then you can sort out how many cars are needed; in my case, where it was basically a handful of close family, only one car was needed.
  • You will be asked to provide a listing for the local paper, and any national papers. You can, of course, arrange this yourself, but it was easier to do it during the meeting. They just arranged it and passed the newspaper fee onto me as part of their bill, which was one less thing to be bothered about. What you need to think about in advance is the wording of this. I was fairly clear, having thought about this on the way to the meeting, that I wanted the phrase “…died on the 31st January” rather than some euphemism; but, the important thing is to think about it in advance. You will need to choose a date for this to go into the paper; it is important to note this as other people will want to put their own notices in on the same day. In terms of choosing a date, I found it useful for this to be sufficiently long after the meeting with the funeral director so that other people have time to put their own notices in; whilst, not being so close to the funeral that people who see then notice will not be able to arrange to attend. I think we are past my grandmother’s era, where people diligently read the personal notices in the local paper each evening; but, not so far past that time that a few people won’t be drawn out by this process. My impression is that the best thing to do is to have one main, unsigned notice with details of when any where the funeral will be, and then follow this with the family tributes. I don’t know anything about how this process works for national papers.
  • Whilst we’re on the subject, you also need to decide whether to say “family flowers only, donations to [charity]“, or “flowers, or donations to [charity]” or whatever. My impression is that people will give flowers if you give them the option. At my mother’s funeral, where I had said “family flowers only”, we got a handful of charity donations; I accidentally used a different wording “flowers or donations…” for my father’s funeral and all the contributions were flowers. Again, it is useful to have this in mind before going to the meeting.
  • Also, you need to think about a funeral date. The funeral director will ideally want to make this decision at the meeting. In both of the funerals I arranged, the funeral happened a couple of weeks after the death. The funeral director will be able to confirm right away in the meeting which dates are available.
  • You need to decide on a location. My only experience is with holding funerals in municipal crematoria. In Nottingham there is a choice of two; our funeral director was fairly direct about the advantages and disadvantages of each in terms of access, atmosphere, etc. You might want to think about this in advance if you have such a choice. In particular, it is difficult to know whether to return to the same place as previous family funerals, or whether to go to a different place. For my mother’s funeral, my uncle was fairly firm about wanting to go somewhere different to the previous few family funerals, as they had become too heavy with memories; but, on the other hand, some continuity is good in a different way.
  • You will be asked whether you will provide programmes/orders of service/service sheets/whatever you call them for the funeral itself, or whether you want them to arrange for these to be printed. My impression is that it is most common now for people to print them themselves; I did this and used a single foldable A5 sheet with a photo and dates on the cover, the programme and readings inside, and some photographs and thanks on the back. For a title I used “A Celebration of the Life of…”; there are a number of variants of this, including just having the name and years. Something that I missed off when I did my mother’s funeral, which I should have included, was details of the reception after the funeral; I assumed that I would have lots of time after the funeral itself to pop around to everyone and say “you’d be welcome to come to the Bestwood Park Hotel for tea at 4 o’clock” but actually people dashed off fairly quickly.
  • You will need to decide about who you want to run the funeral on the day. I wanted a non-religious funeral, and I asked if one of the funeral directors was happy to say a few words to introduce and end the ceremony. They were happy to do this (it was an unusual, but not unheard of, request) and in practice he ran the whole thing, introducing the readings and music etc. I got the impression that most people, other than those actively involved in religious congregations (I don’t have any experience of organising this kind of funeral), go for the “rent-a-vicar”, of whom the funeral director will have contact details. There are also “humanist celebrants” if you want someone to lead the service in a more active way but without religion; I don’t know much about this. I chose to have a non-religious ceremony for my mother as she was a clear and consistent atheist, and subsequently did the same for my more questioning, agnostic father—I’ve written elsewhere about why why I think even most religious people should have non-religious funerals, but that is a topic for elsewhere. On the whole, I found that the funeral director was relaxed an accommodating about my wanting a non-religious funeral; but, I did get the impression that it was rather unusual.
  • You will need to pay a deposit at the meeting. This was around 20% of the total cost. I understand that some banks will be sympathetic to advancing some money to the executor of the will before the probate process is complete in order to pay funeral costs.
  • You need to decide whether the cremation ashes should be scattered in the crematorium grounds, or whether you want to keep them or scatter them yourself later. This is a complex decision and I’ll write more about it one day. But, this is another thing you should think about before the meeting.
  • You should make sure that you get a copy of the details that you have agreed; it is a complex process and you may need to revisit things, so having a copy of the arrangements that you have come to is useful.

After this meeting, there are a number of things to sort out. You will need to come up with a structure for the funeral. If you are having a standard religious service, this might be fairly clearly prescribed; otherwise you will need to decide upon a sequence of readings, music, etc., and give this to the funeral director so that they know what is happening. The funeral director will let you know how long you will have for the funeral; at the crematorium I used it was about 35 minutes, which sounds short but is about right. My experience was that it was harder to find people to do readings and tributes than I had imagined; a lot of people are either fearful of public speaking in general, or find it hard to imagine speaking coherently at such an emotionally charged event.

You need to take a set of clothes for the deceased to be dressed in to the funeral director. You need to print the programmes and take them to the funeral director. Remember that you, for the most part, have time to change your mind about details of the funeral up until a day or two before it happens. Most of the decisions that you make at the meeting can be readily changed.

I have focused here on the advance work of arranging the funeral. But, I would like to mention a couple of things that surprised me about the day of the funeral itself.

  • If you are part of the funeral procession, the funeral starts, basically, once you arrive. My experience as a guest at funerals is that you arrive at the crematorium, church or cemetery a little before the appointed hour, and then have 20 minutes to chat and wait around before the funeral starts. I assumed that the same would be true at my mother’s funeral; that the procession would arrive, park and then I would have time to speak to people before it started. But, of course, that is not what happens. You arrive, get out the car, and within 30 seconds someone is telling you where to stand in order to follow the coffin into the building. This is obvious in retrospect but it was a shock on the day.
  • There might be a little bit of paperwork to sort out before the funeral procession leaves. For example, with my mother’s funeral, I had to collect a little box of jewellery that she had been wearing and sign to say that I had safely received it.
  • Another, minor thing to bear in mind is what happens to the flowers after the funeral. You will be asked whether you want to take them with you or whether you want them donating (I think they give them to local retirement homes etc.). I was happy for them to be donated (they give you the cards with the messages on), but it was a snap decision that you have to make there-and-then, and so it is probably another good thing to think about in advance.

So, that’s that. I’ve been wanting to write this for a while. Organising funerals is difficult, and one way to make them a tiny bit easier is to have some idea of the decisions that you will have to make around a funeral. I hope that this is useful to some people at a difficult time in their lives.

Good Advice (1)

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Random quote in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable scientific poster:

Be sensitive and brilliant