The other week, I had the pleasure of attending a funeral. That’s right, I said it was a pleasure. In fact, it’s hard to think of it as a funeral really. It was a celebration of a life lived.
A lot of tosh can be said at funerals. It always amazes me how wonderful people are once they’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. And it’s often a complete stranger who’s extolling their virtues.
But John’s celebration was different. No one from the family spoke, but at least the vicar (I could be wrong about that, they all look the same to me) had known John and could relate personal experiences. He also spoke with a humour that seemed to resonate with John’s character.
Added to all this was the opportunity to enter the crematorium to “Zip a Dee Doo Dah!” and leave with Mac Davis singing “It’s Hard to be Humble”.
But there was more. A gathering for what I assumed would be a fairly standard bun fight resulted in a good sized minority producing a range of musical instruments – a reflection of John’s involvement in the local folk scene. Singing and dancing followed and it was great to see John’s wife joining in. This truly was a celebration, and I felt privileged to be there.
What was interesting to me was that John had left instructions for his funeral.
Before my dad died, I broached the subject with him. I actually didn’t expect him to die as soon after as he did, but I was conscious that, when the day came, I’d like to help arrange something he would have wanted. Of course, it can be a difficult issue to bring up, and it wasn’t something my dad was looking forward to but, fortunately, he was willing to talk about it.
We didn’t come up with a full, step-by-step, plan of action. But we agreed on a sense of what should happen. I remember his eyes lighting up when he realised it wasn’t mandatory to have a religious representative leading the ceremony. I still don’t know what his spiritual beliefs were, but clearly organised religion wasn’t prominent.
So, when he died, we were able to come up with a celebration that reflected him. Never having organised a funeral before, I also had the benefit of having no pre-conceived ideas. When the question arose as to where the cars should start from, rather than consider more traditional options, I arranged for everyone to gather at his local pub.
During the ceremony, one of my sisters spoke about him, leaving us fighting back tears as we remembered how lucky we’d been to have him in our lives. When it was my turn to speak, I returned to the pub theme, producing a full beer mug I’d smuggled in and getting everyone to stand up and raise an imaginary glass to say “cheers”, before putting the pint on his coffin. Some people might think that disrespectful, but he would have appreciated it.
There was no singing or dancing afterwards, but the celebration continued at his local with the humour and banter typical of a night out with him. As the saying goes: it’s what he would have wanted.
But it could have been different. We do need to think about these things, and we need to talk about them to our families. Because one thing’s for sure: one day it will happen. And it makes a difference for the people who are there. Of course, there’s sadness. But, if you can give them the send-off you know they’d have wanted, and you can smile even through the tears, it means you won’t be left wondering if you’ve done the best you can. It also reduces the risk of conflict over how it should be done if there are differing views amongst the family.
So have that difficult conversation – preferably while they’re still in good health (it’s a lot less uncomfortable). And if you don’t want to ask outright, start by telling them what you’d like. Or, if this blog has made you think, share your ideas for your own funeral here. Then you don’t even have to have the conversation. Just tell your loved ones to read this and the suggestions that follow.
Here are some of mine to get the party started:
1. No religion. Everyone make their peace in their own way
2. Give me a green burial
3. Play Live and Let Die
It’ll be interesting to see what you’d like, and whether you have those conversations…