One family’s take on the perfect funeral

Charles Cowling

The following is taken from Ben Heald’s blog and so much speaks for itself that I don’t need to add another word:

Nothing can prepare you for losing close family suddenly; and I don’t want to dwell on the personal loss.  What I’d like to talk about is the learning I’ve taken from the experience of a family working together as a team to plan and carry through a funeral event.

The key intervention came from the funeral director (Andrew Smith in Macclesfield), who we found online in the Good Funeral Guide.  Just over 12 hours after Mum died, my sister Kate & I were in his office and he told us we mustn’t rush things, the funeral was principally for the living not the dead and the more the family got involved the better they’d feel about everything – 3 crucial differences from the approach we’d taken with my father’s funeral 17 years ago.

Mum wasn’t a church goer, and taken together with Andrew’s wise counsel, we quite quickly decided on the format.  Clearly funerals are personal, and there is absolutely no sense of being prescriptive, but this was our take on the perfect funeral:

  • We tried to speak to everyone in Mum’s address book to talk to them personally; even though we knew many of them would already have heard.
  • Before the funeral we spent time together for 3 days as an extended family (of 11) at Mum’s house.
  • The night before the funeral we stayed at the B&B accommodation on the barn complex, so were able to rehearse the night before and morning of the funeral.
  • We held it in a barn in the countryside away from main roads with a lake right outside (in fact traditionally a wedding venue).
  • We dug through all her old photos and had 20 of them scanned and blown up onto A2 boards.
  • We found the old cine films (that had been lost for 30 years) and had them transferred to DVD.
  • Six of Mum’s teenage grandchildren carried the coffin into the barn from the hearse.  To better prepare them we’d taken them all along to see her in the Chapel of Rest two days beforehand.
  • We selected a mixture of sacred and secular readings all read by the family.
  • We asked Mum’s cousin aged 79 to introduce the service and the various hymns/readings.
  • A friend of Mum’s played the piano accompaniment.
  • My son sang Gerald Finzi’s ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’.
  • My brother Jonny sang a Native American Quechua spiritual.
  • Jonny & I played a duet on the piano – En Bateau from Debussy’s Petite Suite.
  • I delivered the address, which we’d all worked on together with inputs from Mum’s sister Judith.
  • Before the service we played Bach’s Goldberg variations and the coffin came into Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth.
  • Mum was actually cremated the following day, but no one attended (we described it when asked as a private cremation); which meant we could immediately start talking to everyone with tea, cake and champagne, surrounded by the gorgeous blown up photos.

As Andrew had advised, by getting involved and because we’d taken our time, the focus was on her life not her death.  The children also told us they felt they now knew her as a person, not just as a grandmother.  And because we’d worked together as an extended team, the bonds between us all have been strengthened.

So my recommendation would be not to specify what you want at your funeral, let the next generation work out together what’s right.  Just as in the business world, you shouldn’t micromanage your teams.

4 thoughts on “One family’s take on the perfect funeral

  1. Charles Cowling
    louise

    ahhh this is just… well its beautiful, if only every funeral was like this. thank you so much for sharing Charles x


    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Thomas Friese

    Inspiring, Charles!

    Although, as the author says, one hates to make prescriptions for funerals, this one seems a model of how a truly personalized funeral can be worked out.

    Of course, it took a lot of personal effort on the part of the family, that must be accepted.


    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    gloriamundi

    An uplifting account thanks Charles. I’m with XP on the widely varying degree to which people have the cultural resources to say goodbye in this splendid fashion. Which is why the early advice from both FDs and ministers is crucial. We must explore gently, and avoid closing down too early on choices, and then see how much people can and want to do for themselves. The more the better, of course, as a general priniple. But the best part of all this, the seed for it all, was the FD’s advice. Could he infect some of his colleagues round here with the virus please?


    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    X.Piry

    Great post, thanks Charles. And it’s very reassuring to see a funeral director offer such sound advice.

    If I may venture a thought, however. Mr Heald and his family were able to put this ceremony together and wanted to do it. They are obviously articulate, intelligent people, able to express emotion. Not all are so fortunate in their personal abilities and nobody should feel guilty if they are unwilling or unable to have the same level of input in their ceremonies.

    Lovely to read though, Charles – very uplifting. Thank you.


    Charles Cowling

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