‘It was an incredibly enriching day’: the families taking control of death

Courtesy of TheGuardian.com | By Annalisa Barbieri | Originally Published 01.06.2018 | Posted 02.25.2018

We plan for births, but fail to take full charge with deaths. Annalisa Barbieri meets the families who are building coffins, cancelling the hearses and creating highly personalised funeral services – before, sadly, putting her new knowledge to use.

Six years ago, my cousin died. As we waited on the kerb, my aunt, her mother, reached out, as if to touch her daughter’s coffin through the glass of the hearse window. “I hate to think of her in that box,” she said. And a chink of brutal reality hit me; this was not like any funeral I had seen at a roadside before. This was her child, in a box in a car. The tragedy was only accentuated by how alien it all felt.

I had, not long before, given birth to my second child at home, with my eldest upstairs asleep, and the promise of blueberry pancakes (and a martini) after. I started to think about how much preparation we put into birth: making birth plans, reading books, talking about it, everything to make it as perfect – personal – as possible. Death is more certain than giving birth, but we rarely talk about it or want to plan for it. Yet when death comes, funerals are, as my partner says, “the ultimate distress purchase”.

All through the ceremony I chewed on this. Both ends of life, one so well catered for, so planned; the other so little talked about or planned for. And yet here we were, marking a death in a way that seemed so dark and sad and not particularly recognisable as being my cousin’s. I’ve always thought you know you’re at a good funeral if the deceased were to wake up and feel right at home. And while personalised services are familiar enough these days, the conventions of hearse, traditional coffin and brisk service linger.

For me, the most terrifying part of a funeral is when the coffin comes in. That and hearses, which have always evoked a visceral reaction, as if simply by looking at them you might die. They hint at one thing: epic pain and loss.

I had written about wicker coffins for a column once. Did wicker coffins make funerals nicer? Could anything?

It was investigating how to make funerals more family friendly that led me to Gloucestershire to meet Jane Harris and Jimmy Edmonds, whose son, Josh, had died, aged 22, two years earlier as a result of a road accident while travelling in Vietnam.

As they had sat around the kitchen table taking in the terrible news, they decided to take control of Josh’s funeral in their own way. “Why would we want to hand that special ritual to someone else?” Jane explains.

It was Jimmy’s idea to build Josh’s coffin, helped by a cabinet-maker friend. “We spent £30 on materials,” Jane says. “The whole community helped organise the funeral and for the men, building the coffin – doing something – was useful because some found it difficult to talk. There was a traditional division of labour, the men doing one thing, the women another. It was like a ritual.”

Josh’s coffin was made of one-inch plywood and his funeral took place not in a rushed half-hour, but over seven hours. It was held at a local venue that had nothing funereal about it: one wall was lit by fairy lights. The day was about honouring, remembering and celebrating. Josh’s coffin arrived in an estate car, and was carried in by his friends and father. (“It’s useful,” Jimmy tells me, “to check practicalities. That the coffin will fit through any door you want it to, and that it will fit with people on either side carrying it.”)

Friends remembered Josh, sang songs and read poetry. A humanist celebrant conducted the ceremony. “People weren’t afraid of the coffin,” Josh’s parents say: “They touched it.”

The second half of the funeral involved the coffin being carried to a more private room where people said their goodbyes and wrote messages for Josh on pieces of paper or ribbons, which were then threaded through the coffin poles and subsequently kept – indeed, they were the first thing I saw when I walked into Jimmy and Jane’s house, hanging in the sitting room.

“This was the death of a young person in the wrong order of things,” says Jane. “We didn’t want it to be dark. We wanted to create a safe place [at the ceremony] for his family and his younger sister. [Josh also has an older brother]. It was an incredibly enriching day, the most important day of my life, but also the saddest.”

Why do the funeral yourself? “You can create something that’s about you and your family and the ritual of it saved me, in so many ways,” says Jane. “We weren’t trying to save money, we were trying to save ourselves.”

The final stage of the funeral happened the next day when Josh was cremated. Even here, the family did their own thing, booking a double slot at the crematorium, “so we wouldn’t be rushed”. (You usually get 15 to 20 minutes and that can seem a savagely short time to say that final goodbye.)

Josh’s ashes are now all over the world, some by the tree they planted for him, some his mother carries in a bracelet, friends have some and some are in the house in a silver-lidded dish, which Jimmy pulled out and opened. He proffered it to me and this is where I faltered. I realised it was a huge honour to be allowed to touch his son’s ashes, but I had never touched human ashes before. Three years later, this act was to stay with me – save me, actually – as I handled my own father’s ashes; and it made the whole process so much less terrifying.

In Cambridge, I met David Spiegelhalter and Kate Bull, whose son Danny died aged five, of cancer, in 1997. Danny’s death had been expected so they were able to plan. “Even now,” Kate says, “people don’t mind bringing up the subject of Danny, because of their involvement in his funeral.”

Danny had been a very popular young boy, so the day after his death, he was laid out in his Thunderbirds outfit and more than 100 people came to see him, including other parents and many of his classmates. David had got the Natural Death Handbook and found it “an absolute revelation”.

Although Danny’s family, like Josh’s, involved a funeral director to a degree, they did much themselves. “Twenty-four hours after he died, the funeral director took him away and we went and made the coffin,” says David. “It was enormously therapeutic for me to make it; I did it with my men’s group. We had measured Danny up, and then I went to the builder’s merchants to buy the MDF. The weather was fine and we worked outside to make it. It was serviceable and robust, with a well-fitting lid and rope handles.”

Indoors, a “second committee”, largely of women and children, continued the work: Danny’s mum, his two sisters and children he had known. They painted the coffin, drew on it, attached stickers. “Then, about an hour before the funeral started, the funeral directors brought Dan back, put him in the coffin and David and I screwed the lid on,” explains Kate, “which was very hard.”

Danny’s coffin was lined in cloth and a cushion, with bread and presents inside it and his favourite model car. His coffin was carried down the street to a local hall, with his uncle, playing Danny Boy on the violin, walking ahead of the procession.

“We had a master of ceremonies to conduct it,” says Kate, “and balloons on the coffin. Danny’s teacher spoke and held up works of his, and his nurse spoke. There were lots of children at the funeral, and they touched the coffin and were looking at it.”

Danny was taken in a hearse from the centre to the small local cemetery, with just family and close friends in attendance. The grave had been dug, but they lowered the coffin in themselves and filled in the grave using spades.

The school later organised the children to make flags and pictures to put on the grave. When I visited it in 2013, there were still little toys, visible, in the grass.

Not long after my cousin’s death, other people I knew started dying. An uncle, three friends, two aunts – including the one whose comment had started all this. We became adept at organising family funerals. Each time, we used the same undertakers who we had got to know so they were no longer anonymous people in dark suits. The funeral director, Linda, became like one of the family. She knew my dad and my dad knew her.

Then, last year, my father died. This time, I knew we had options. I knew we could keep him at home for a while, that we could make his coffin, that we didn’t need a hearse to transport him. I knew we could bury him in my garden if we wanted to. But none of this was right for us. Moreover, because of my research, I was no longer scared to talk about death and so had talked to my dad about what he wanted: to be cremated and brought home, to Italy.

We kept my father at home for 11 hours after he died. It was, incredibly, a magical time. Then, we said our final goodbyes. We had already called Linda.

My father’s funeral could not have been more beautiful. We used a hearse, but that didn’t scare me. When his coffin came into the church, there was no jolt of fear. I actually smiled at him. My children had picked flowers from our garden, and had written their “nonno” letters, which I had sent to Linda and she had put in with him. He had three eulogies, the priest knew him, and we took our time. We drove to the crematorium – the bit I had been dreading – where, because Linda had talked us through our options, there was no conveyor belt to take him away, no curtains drawn. We played Italian songs and when everyone else had gone, his close family gathered round the coffin – as Jane had said they’d done with Josh – and we said goodbye.

 Jane Harris and Jimmy Edmonds co-founded a charity last year: thegoodgriefproject.co.uk

The rules: what you need to know to create a personalised farewell

The three rules to adhere to:

1. You must register the death.

2. You must dispose of the body in an approved manner.

3. You must not expose a dead body on the public highway.

Direct funerals – such as David Bowie’s – are on the increase. Here, there is no ceremony, the body is collected, then disposed of – cremated or buried. You can have a separate ceremony at a later date. Direct funerals suit some (it’s cheaper) but for many, a funeral ceremony, with the coffin present – is an important part of grieving and saying goodbye.

You do not need to use a funeral director unless you want to. Or you can use them just for parts of the funeral. If you can’t find a funeral director who will do this, look elsewhere.

If you are told you “can’t” do something you would like to do, check. It is very easy to be bullied when you are vulnerable and grieving.

You do not need to use a hearse – any suitable and safe vehicle can be used.

You do not need to use a coffin – although most crematoriums will insist on a “rigid container”. Bodies can usually be buried in a shroud as long as they can safely be lowered into the grave. If a person has died of an infectious disease they would have been placed in a body bag by the hospital/undertaker and a shroud could then be wrapped around that. See hse.gov.uk/pubns/web01.pdf for more information

You do not need to embalm a body unless it is being repatriated abroad.

Most crematoria will deal with the family direct.

You can keep a body at home, with sensible precautions.

You can bury a body on private land as long as certain guidelines are followed (naturaldeath.org.uk/index.php?page=home-burial; gov.uk/guidance/cemeteries-and-burials-prevent-groundwater-pollution).

Last, the Natural Death Centre website (naturaldeath.org.uk) is a fantastic resource for learning more about the choices you have, including a template for a death plan. (Why not? We have birth plans.)

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