Last orders

Putting together an appropriate funeral that reflects the life of the dear departed can be a considerable burden on families if only minimal – often no – instructions have been left.

I know a woman who has planned her funeral to the smallest detail.  She has chosen the funeral director, the location, the style of memorial (celebration rather than service) and the music. 

She has even written – and recorded – her own eulogy.  Everything is put together on paper, clipped to her will, and also on flash drives which have already been given to each of her children. 

There is absolutely nothing for anyone to do after death except to carry out her wishes as clearly specified.

“When you get to the age of realising that nobody gets out of this life alive, you’ve already been to a lot of funerals and seen just how badly some of them can be done and how little they reflect the life or character of the deceased,” she says.

“I’ve seen brothers and sisters quarrelling fiercely over how best to give their mother or father the right kind of send-off.  I’ve seen newly-made widows and widowers too grief-stricken to make rational decisions.  The only person who can really decide how it should be done is you!”

And these days, we have a wealth of choice when it comes to saying our goodbyes in style. Of course the conventionally religious have it easy because they can opt for the traditional church and service of their faith.

For the rest, the sky is literally the limit because some have even opted to have their ashes scattered over the sea or some other beloved place from a plane.

Fortunately, today’s funeral directors, responsible under law for the post-mortem basics, are a flexible lot and ready to consider just about anything in the way of a memorial except for the illegal and the distasteful.

Dean Gregson of a long-established family firm of funeral directors, says he likes the way in which funerals have changed from the sombre traditional service where the name of the deceased might be mentioned only once or twice to today’s customised event with input from family and friends. 

He says the latter is very important and those who refuse to consider their own demise and say they “don’t want any fuss” need to understand that the friends and relatives left behind need a ceremony of some kind, however modest, for closure.

Community celebrant Sandra Hardie agrees, though she finds the term “closure” rather too final and prefers to think of her role as helping the bereaved accept their loss. 

Sandra, author of the hilarious Diary of a Menopausal Poet is now writing a book on dealing with bereavement and says that funerals/memorials are not for those who have died but for those left behind.

She lists the most important points when planning your own funeral as:

• Tell your stories when you are alive.  Share these with family and friends.

• Write down what you don’t say – including any instructions for your memorial service or life celebration.

• Put everything in a box (Sandra says she is a tactile person and prefers this to digital storage), including photos, documents, favourite songs and anything else that can be used after your death to construct a relevant service to remember you by.

• Don’t make it too long.  “The mind can only absorb what the bum can handle” she says, no doubt remembering, as we all do, those memorial services that drag on drearily to the stage where grief is replaced by a sore bottom and boredom!

“One of the most important aspects of any funeral ceremony,” Sandra says, “Is that it contains both laughter and tears”. 

“What’s more, people are multi-dimensional and your memorial needs to reflect the several different aspects of your life because those attending will each see you differently, depending on your shared relationship.  Often they are surprised to learn things about you that they never knew before”.

As with weddings and other celebrations, themed funerals have become very popular so If Star Wars is your favourite movie you could get all the guests to come as characters from the series – you could even take part yourself, lying there in an open coffin dressed as Darth Vader. It has been done!

In fact as Dean Gregson says, when it comes to customised funerals “there is nothing different; it just hasn’t been done yet”.

And to suit the theme of your choice you can have a personalised coffin made by a specialist company – no more sombre mahogany and polished brass but something environmentally-friendly in a bright colour, maybe with a motif to represent your interests – sport and music being two popular choices. 

Secular music and photographs have become standard at most memorial services today but if you don’t want the choice of both to be left to others, it’s a good idea to select them now. They can be put into, say, a PowerPoint presentation that tells your life story and is easy to project in your chosen venue.  And can be easily updated over the years.

You could also consider leaving something more tangible than just fading memories. For example gifts for those who attend your goodbye ceremony, such as packets of seeds or seedlings to plant in your name. 

This would of course need to be an instruction in your will, and the money set aside to pay for it.

When making your plans it’s also important to consider the practicalities for those tasked with carrying them out. Outdoor venues are dependent on good weather and are not the best choice if audio-visual equipment is to be used. 

And then there was the scuba diving enthusiast who left instructions for an underwater memorial service without considering the logistics, the cost or even whether some of those likely to attend could swim!

It might seem a bit crazy, even morbid, to plan your own death maybe 20 years ahead of time.  But consider this:  ours is a long-lived society and whereas in the past most people married and had a conventional nuclear family, many people today live their lives without permanent relationships and end up childless and without any significant other to organise an appropriate check-out ceremony. 

We need to be less squeamish and confront the possibility of our departure from this life more realistically. After all, it’s our last orders and we want to make sure they are absolutely right!