It is seven years since my father died, suddenly and “before his time”. Seven years since a phone call woke the family and plunged us into the pain that surrounds the death of a loved one. Luckily my mother and I were able to be with my father when he died which was a real gift and I believe that that last contact made us feel reluctant to let others (apart from the necessary hospital staff) look after my father.
My sister arrived from London later on that day and, after a short discussion, we decided that we would like to arrange the funeral ourselves – it seemed more personal as well as fitting for my father who had never been conventional.
Due to the nature of my father’s death, there had to be a post mortem which was inconclusive so there was to be an inquest at a later date to determine the exact cause of death – this can be important for insurance reasons. In the meantime we were given an interim death certificate and told that the funeral could be arranged. The Coroner’s officers were surprised that we were acting as the funeral directors and there was no general knowledge that we could. “Most unusual” and “Are you sure?” were common retorts. But we knew that we were doing right and as my father would have wanted. In fact, we were surprised by how straight forward it was to make the funeral arrangements and to complete all the necessary paperwork.
The mortuary staff were brilliant and, when the time came, placed my father into the willow coffin that we bought off eBay along with a pillow and blanket. The staff at the crematorium helped us with the process of booking and arranging the service. The service was to be small with only my mother, my sister and myself, our husbands and children. We planned to hold a big memorial a few weeks later when family and friends could come from upcountry and abroad.
The service was non-religious as my father was a pantheist and it reflected his love of poetry and classical music. Choosing the music was the most difficult task and we wished that my father had let us know what he would have liked.
The funeral day arrived. We erected a gazebo on the lawn and a table scattered with wild flowers. Terry and my brother-in-law went to collect my father from the mortuary in the hire car we had booked for use as a hearse. The florist arrived and we drank tea and ate fruit cake as we waited for the boys to return and place my father’s coffin on the table outside for the florist to get to work. The willow coffin was truly beautiful with the flowers artistically arranged on top. We placed my father’s summer hat amongst them as a finishing touch before gathering around to have a last glass of sherry with him on the lawn. Two good friends who had volunteered to drive arrived and we gently lifted the coffin in and set off to the crematorium.
We had no official celebrant, having decided to take the service ourselves. Three of us spoke – a eulogy, a reading and two poems – all interspersed with beautiful music, the notes of which rose and swirled poignantly towards the roof as they mingled with the spiralling smoke of sandalwood josticks. The curtains closed to the sound of Tuscan birdsong. A meal for the eight of us in a quiet room at a local restaurant rounded off the sad day.
It felt as if death was hovering over us that year. My aunt in Canada died in February, nine weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. It was too soon after my father and knocked us back emotionally. Barely a month after that, we had our next confrontation with death when I was visited by the police to be informed that a friend, Tom, had been found dead in a hotel in Newquay. With no family in England, I was treated as the next of kin, had to identify him, helped the authorities contact his teenage son in Canada and was approached regarding the funeral arrangements.
Tom had been a troubled soul. He had no will, no savings and certainly no means of paying for the funeral. Cremation seemed obvious as we wanted to scatter his ashes on his parents’ grave up in Scotland and send some to his son. I called a couple of funeral directors, trying to cut the costs to the bare minimum, but could not get lower than £2,000. Happy to do the legwork ourselves, we still could not afford the cost of the cremation, certificates and coffin. We gave up after weeks of unsuccessfully exploring other options and Cornwall Council took over to arrange a public health funeral. The funeral took place at 9am with no flowers and no opportunity to personalise the service. We were unable to take Tom’s ashes away and they were scattered in the garden of remembrance by the staff.
The process of Tom’s funeral raised many issues for us and we began to research the different options open to those unable to afford a funeral and also those who would like to organise their own funerals. Looking back and knowing what we do now, there are some things that we feel could have been done differently but we did not have the knowledge then. We have had many discussions over the past year and finally decided that we would like to work as funeral facilitators, helping others to be actively involved in arranging their own funerals and to reduce the cost where possible. We do not consider ourselves to be funeral directors in the traditional sense – more as a “funeral friend” to help and support you to plan and carry out a funeral for your loved one.