The Good Funeral Guide Blog

About time too?

Friday, 4 July 2014



Lord Bonomy’s exasperation with the NHS, cremation authorities and funeral directors, whose ill-informed advice and guidance led so many thousands of parents of babies who had died to suppose that there would be no ashes after cremation, caused him to recommend the establishment of an inspectorate of crematoria:

Scottish Ministers should appoint an independent Inspector to monitor working practices and standards at crematoria, provide feedback to Cremation Authorities on how they are performing and to report to the Scottish Ministers as required. The independent Inspector should have authority to investigate complaints from the public about working practices and standards at crematoria, to adjudicate upon these complaints and report findings to the Scottish Ministers. 

But he doesn’t stop there. He wants the clean-up to go further. Given the circumstances, it is entirely reasonable that he goes on to recommend that:

The role of the Inspector should be extended to the funeral industry in respect of which there is no current provision for inspection.

There’s a fine bombshell for a Friday morning.

Hat-tip to JB for highlighting this.






Tim Morris of the ICCM on the baby ashes scandal

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Parents respond to the Mortonhall Investigation Report


We are pleased this morning to publish the responses of Tim Morris, Chief Executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management to four questions we emailed him last weekend concerning the recommendations of the Bonomy Report which was set up in the aftermath of the Mortonhall Investigation Report. We are extremely grateful to him for taking the time to do this, the more so because he is under absolutely no obligation to do so. GFG questions in black, Tim’s response in blue.

1.   I am not aware of any published figures regarding success rates for the recovery of ashes resulting from the cremation of ‘babies and infants’ (Bonomy) by crematoria in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Have the figures been collated?

 UK figures in E & W have not been collated however the BBC has sent FOI requests to all local government crematoria. As you know, private crematoria are not bound by FOI legislation. The figures in Scotland were collated by the Commission and these reflect those previously collected by the BBC and identify those where no ashes or a limited number were returned. The private sector responded to the Commission.
2.   Would you expect to see, or are you aware of, similar disparities in baby ash recovery rates between crematoria in the rest of the UK?
We are only aware of the case of Emstrey crematorium however on the basis of information relating to Scotland there could potentially be more. 
At the outset of the Mortonhall issue the Institute couldn’t understand why any crematorium would treat  the cremation of a baby differently to that of an adult. It is now evident that this was happening at a number of crematoria for many years. Dame Angiolini recognised the perceived difference between ashes and cremated remains as being the  ‘fundamental issue’. The fact that ashes were recovered at Mortonhall and buried without the knowledge of parents is indicative of the view by some that there is nothing of the baby within the ash. 
3.   Bonomy recommends that the “ICCM and FBCA should review their respective technical training programmes”. Has the ICCM fallen short in its training provision to operators of crematorium equipment and subsequent sharing of best practice?
It has to be said that the Institute has not included specific baby and infant cremation training in its technicians training scheme however it had published articles on technique as long ago as 1997. At the time of the Mortonhall issue coming to light there was no indication that difference was being applied in respect of ‘ashes’ and ‘cremated remains’. No more excuses – the job needs to be finished. This recommendation is being addressed with a new training unit to be released in the near future. 
4.   Has the ICCM formulated and published a response to Bonomy? If so, may I have a copy?

I’ll forward the Institute’s newsletter this week when it goes out to our members. We are working closely with Sands who will also be sending out correspondence this week.

The report has been well received by the Institute’s board and we have commenced implementing the specific recommendations. We are certainly pleased in respect of:

*     The definition of the terms ashes and cremated remains are to be defined in legislation as this effectively clarifies beyond doubt the ‘fundamental issue’ and difference of opinion between the FBCA and ICCM.

*     Forms and register are to be made statutory documents as this will force a common approach and provide security of information for parents.

*     The national investigation of every case in Scotland will be undertaken by Dame Angiolini as this might bring closure for some bereaved parents and get to the bottom of the root cause.

*     The Scottish Government is making representation to its counterparts in England and Wales as we believe that the Ministry of Justice must now become involved.

*     The recommended inspectorate. This is something that the Institute suggested in 2000 and 2004.

*     Opposition to policy and guidance for the sensitive disposal of babies has been swept aside.

Institute members have been sent regular newsletters since this issue first arose informing them of progress with regard the work of the Commission and is the only organisation within the cremation sector that has posted the reports and newsletters on its website.

On a closely connected matter the main reason for the Institute’s first policy statement made in 1985 was to cease the clinical waste route for babies. This continued to be a hidden scandal for years. At last, and following a 30 minute documentary the Minister ordered a cessation of this route for babies just a month or so ago.

All that remains

Tuesday, 1 July 2014



There is no legal definition of ashes.

Perhaps you prefer to call them ‘cremated remains’. Or ‘tangible remains’. Or even ‘total recoverable remains’. Selecting just one term and assigning an exact definition to it was one of the jobs Lord Bonomy set himself in his report. The fact that there remains no legal definition has resulted in confused and misleading guidance to the parents of babies who have died.

Does it really matter what you call them? Yes, it does. It comes down to what you think ashes are.

Are they what remains of a dead human after cremation?

Or are they the remains of a dead human + coffin + anything that was placed in the coffin after they have been cremated?

On the one hand, the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities offers this directive to those who advise the parents of children who have died:

“In cases where bereaved parents desire the cremation of an infant or of fetal remains, they should be warned that there are occasions when no tangible remains are left after the cremation process has been completed. This is due to the cartilaginous nature of the bone structure.”

The inference of this directive is that ‘tangible remains’ are the remains of the body. The ash from the coffin and anything in it don’t count.

On the other hand, the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management defines ashes as both the remains of the body + coffin + anything in it. It all counts.

When this clash of definitions was pointed out to Tim Morris, chief exec of the ICCM, in 2013, he responded: “I have only heard about this distinction in the last few months.” Yup, the two representative authorities have been reading from different hymn sheets.

Everyone agrees that cremation is complete when the last flame has flickered and died. No one is suggesting that metal parts which survive cremation should be considered ashes.

And common sense tells us that the FBCA directive is nonsense. How on earth could you possibly tell skeletal remains apart from coffin ash? Only a fool would try to separate them.

Bonomy takes the view that everything that remains at the end of a cremation is ashes. His opinion is reinforced by the “widespread perception among the public” that this is so, and that if that is not the perception among crematoria staff, then it should be.”

He identifies the conflicting perception of representatives and staff of Cremation Authorities and Funeral Directors who believe that “’ashes’ are what remains of the cremated baby.”

In doing so, he gets to the root cause of the misleading advice given to the public: the misguided “understanding that the bones are not sufficiently developed to produce remains led crematoria to convey to Funeral Directors, clergy and healthcare staff that there would not be, or were unlikely to be, ashes following the cremation of a baby” – because coffin ash doesn’t count.

This ‘understanding’, let us be clear, seems to have resulted from ignorance that skeletal remains can be recovered from a baby of 17 weeks’ gestation. So it is with ill-concealed understatement that Bonomy concludes:  “The extent to which that information was accepted without question by healthcare staff, as illustrated in the MIR, is surprising.

Bonomy wants cremation law in Scotland to define ashes as: “all that is left within the cremator at the conclusion of the cremation process and following the extraction of all metal.”

But as he points out, crematoria in Scotland comprise but 10% of the UK total. We clearly need a clarification of the law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, too. The sooner the better.



Baby ashes scandal: responses to Bonomy

Monday, 30 June 2014

The Bonomy report lays bare the reasons why some crematoria have been able and willing to recover ashes from infant cremations and others haven’t. Given the enduring and agonising distress and uncertainty this has caused to an uncountable number of parents, it can only be a matter of time before the media give it the treatment it deserves. The BBC has already been extremely active in Scotland and at Emstrey crematorium, Shrewsbury.

The inconsistencies of practice highlighted by Bonomy are of the gravest possible concern. Some crematoria have recovered ashes in 100% of cases, others in none: 0%. The science shows that a foetus as young as 17 weeks’ gestation will, if cremated gently, yield ash. This being so, and given the extreme sensitivity of the matter to the parents of babies who have died:

Why on earth has best practice not been applied in all crematoria in the UK?

How is it that some crematorium managers and technicians seem to have lost all sense of duty to the bereaved?

Bonomy’s recommendations are comprehensive. If applied, they will make the future a better place. If you haven’t read them, you really ought to because no one escapes criticism; everyone has something important to learn. Here are some of the most important. The bold is mine.

In legislating, devising policy, drafting information and guidance documents, and making arrangements for and conducting baby cremations, the baby and the interests of the family should be the central focus of attention. Parents and families should be given time and space to reach the correct decision for them.

“Ashes” should be defined as “all that is left in the cremator at the end of the cremation process and following the removal of any metal”.

All Cremation Authorities at whose crematoria ashes are not always recovered should liaise with a crematorium or crematoria where ashes are recovered more regularly to share their experiences and information about their respective practices. 

As an urgent interim measure, the ICCM and the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities (FBCA) should form a joint working group … to consider the various practices and techniques currently employed in baby and infant cremation in full-scale cremators with a view to identifying those practices which best promote the prospect of recovery of ashes inclusive of baby remains and compiling guidance for cremator operators. 

The ICCM and FBCA should review their respective technical training programmes.

The power of the ICCM and the FBCA to put things right is limited. No one has to join either body. Perhaps in consideration of this, Bonomy (explosively) proposes “an independent Inspector to monitor working practices and standards at crematoria, provide feedback to Cremation Authorities on how they are performing and to report to the Scottish Ministers as required.” A national inspectorate. It makes you wonder why we don’t already have one. That would really shake things up. 

Bonomy concludes with a recommendation whose humanity shames all those who have been complicit in the shoddiness that has caused so much grief and will cause much more as the full story comes out. He asks the Scottish government to “consider whether there should be a national memorial dedicated to the babies whose ashes were mishandled or mismanaged.”

Here at the GFG we have sought responses from people of influence in the industry. We have asked the ICCM and the FBCA to respond to the following questions:

1.  I am not aware of any published figures regarding success rates for the recovery of ashes resulting from the cremation of ‘babies and infants’ (Bonomy) by crematoria in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Have the figures been collated?

2.  If not, we are aware that in Scotland, until very recently ashes had not been recovered and returned in any of Aberdeen’s baby cremations since 2008, while in Inverness 100% were returned. In Fife, ashes were recovered in 45 out of 87 cremations of stillborn babies and those aged up to one year. Would you expect to see, or are you aware of, similar disparities in baby ash recovery rates between crematoria in the rest of the UK?

3.  Bonomy recommends that the “ICCM and FBCA should review their respective technical training programmes”. Has [your organisation] fallen short in its training provision to operators of crematorium equipment and subsequent sharing of best practice?

Tomorrow we shall publish an account by Ken West. On Wednesday we shall publish a response by Tim Morris, chief exec of the ICCM. We shall follow that with a response from the FBCA if we get one.

The science of what works

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Screenshot 2014-06-28 at 16


We’re the last people to gloat over the mortal remains of the Funeral Business Innovation Show, slated to happen at Olympia in November this year. The organisers recently wrote to those who signed up to it:

The event was designed to benefit the funeral industry in a big way, at this stage it appears to be creating strong divides within it (despite our strong will to work with everybody we can to make this happen). We are not in the business of creating wars, we are in the business of benefiting British funeral directors. At this moment in time we are unable to serve the industry with the high standards we set for our events and have no choice but to postpone.

They’ll be astounded it hit the rocks. We could have told them. Actually, the record shows that we did tell them. Do your homework. Funeralword is another country: they do things differently there. Learn the language, get your head around the customs. They hate interlopers; they’ll circle the wagons and fight you off.

Which is what they did. Moral: what’s good for all businesses ain’t necessarily good for the funerals business. Generic solutions don’t apply. Remember what happened to Alex Polizzi? Nice woman, well meaning. The GFG offered a lot of consultancy to the researchers of that project. In the end we made our excuses and stormed out. When last seen, David was doing nicely, thank you.

As I say, we’re not gloating here at the GFG. Lots will be. Because we sometimes get it bang wrong too. Our stunningest misjudgement to date was to pronounce Death Cafe, at the concept phase, a definite non-runner. So what do we know? Ans: that failure is a great instructor. Keep trying.

Success, when it comes, often comes surprisingly easily. It happened like that for the event we got behind at its birth, the Ideal Death Show and Good Funeral Awards. It just goes on getting bigger, better and, here’s the point, ever more valuable to thinking people in the funerals business. No motivational speakers, no BBC Dragons, no gurus, no hotshots, no biwigs, no marketing whizkids — just good, thinking people coming together in a spirit of fellowship to swap thoughts and ideas and stuff that works (what used to be called best practice).

No one owns the event. It belongs to everyone who comes. So: come!

Cremating all over the world

Thursday, 19 June 2014


Britain’s first crematorium, Woking


By Dr Clive T Chamberlain:

The cremation culture and equipment used in the UK is not the only way to dispose of human remains, although cremation in the rest of Europe is similar – driven as it is by a commonality of environmental regulation. The cremators used, and the legislation which controls their use are mostly (but not all) the same, but funeral practices do differ.

The most common cremator type in Germany has a different construction. It is called the ‘Ėtage’ or ‘Durchfall’ oven, and the chambers of the cremator are stacked vertically. The coffin is charged into the top chamber. When partly burned, the remains fall into the next lower chamber, and then finally into the third or ‘ashing’ chamber from which the completed cremated remains are retrieved. This type of cremator tends to be more energy-efficient (after coming up to normal working conditions), and is very suitable for continuous operation.

Differences in practice centre on the relationship of when the cremation takes place as opposed to when the farewell ceremonies take place, and this influences a number of details of practice.

Some countries (for example Scandinavia and German-speaking countries) have farewell ceremonies soon after death but the coffin is stored for cremation at a later date – sometimes several weeks after the farewell ceremony. Consequently, the cremation is almost a ‘production line’ operation, carried out separately from family participation. This enables the actual cremation process to be planned in an orderly manner and it also enables extended periods of operation to be used (even 24 hour operation), with more efficient use of energy and facilities.

It is not uncommon for a single cremator to carry out as many as 5,000 cremations in a year (for example in Moscow) compared to an average a few hundred per cremator per year in the UK – in the same make of cremator! There are tantalising savings of energy and greatly reduced wear of the cremator construction – there being no repeated start-up and shutdown of the unit each day. The crematorium is still operated in a most dignified and tasteful way and cremated remains are returned to families.

The remainder of Europe tends to carry out cremations as in the UK, and the family is present at the farewell ceremony at the crematorium, with cremation immediately thereafter or within the same day. There is one noticeable difference in that is common for the whole process to include family meals or refreshments in elegant and purpose-designed facilities, (whilst the cremation is taking place in the crematorium building), finishing with the presentation of the cremated remains to the family to be taken away. A solemn, dignified and effective way, which is held to assist and promote closure for the family.

There are a wider range of practices used throughout Asia with big differences according to the ethnicity of the populations. Environmental protection is an ever-growing need in Asia and modern crematoria are moving towards close regulation, with advanced cremators and emission abatement systems.

The practice in Japan is quite different, and there are more than 1,200 crematoria throughout the country. The cremator is constructed differently, and the base is removable, so it can be moved in and out of the cremator on wheels. Coffins are inserted into the cremator on ‘chariots’ on which they burn. After the completion of cremation the remains, still on the vehicle, are removed, allowed to cool and then placed in a room set aside for families who then select pieces of bone of the deceased for retention.

Mother of all swear words

Wednesday, 18 June 2014



Posted by Wendy Coulton

Recently I had a dilemma in that a funeral I was planning and conducting was for someone who was known among their close friends for using the expletive C*** (C U Next Tuesday) with affection and as a genuine term of endearment.

I winced when I heard this because it is the mother of all swear words and I shuddered at the thought of having my mouth washed out with soap if I cursed (a threat my mother made when I was a child). But equally I understood and respected that it wasn’t regarded as offensive within the tight knit social circle of the deceased.

I knew that I would not myself be able to say the C word as an individual with my own values and also in my professional capacity as a funeral celebrant.

The friends were rallying their support by producing the Order of Service and they wanted to include this particular word on it. When I spoke to the mother of the deceased to research the tribute I became increasingly uncomfortable that her generation of the family could be offended by this language and I shared my concern diplomatically with the friend who was organising the Order of Service.

The friend was very gracious and acknowledged the point I raised. They came up with their own compromise which I thought worked brilliantly. A differently worded version of the Order of Service was produced for the family mourners and another with the C word in it was produced and handed out to friends who attended the service.

A day of reckoning for our crematoria?

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


Funeral for an unknown baby


The Bonomy report is published today in Scotland. Its 64 recommendations will address cremation practice in that country and, by extension, throughout Britain. They will impact the NHS, funeral directors and cremation authorities, especially the ICCM and the FBCA.

Shockwaves are expected.

Lord Bonomy’s brief was to “examine the policies, practice and legislation related to the cremation of infants in Scotland and provide recommendations for the future which will ensure that no-one in Scotland ever again has to suffer the distresses that were highlighted by the Mortonhall Investigation Report.”

Reminder: from 1967 until 2011 parents of babies who had died antenatally or perinatally in Edinburgh were informed, on the authority of Mortonhall crematorium, that there would be no ashes after cremation. Hundreds of families were affected.

This is not just a Scottish problem. For a medley of muddled reasons there seems to be no mandated practice nationwide for the cremation of infant remains nor any general awareness that ashes can be recovered from foetuses as young as 17 weeks. As a result, there are probably vastly varying outcomes from crematoria everywhere. Here’s just one (Scottish) example. Until very recently ashes had not been returned in any of Aberdeen’s baby cremations since 2008, while in Inverness 100% were returned. In Fife, ashes were recovered in 45 out of 87 cremations of stillborn babies and those aged up to one year.

What would the picture look like if we had figures for the whole of the UK?

George Bell, manager in charge of Mortonhall for 30 years until 2011, has distanced himself from criticism and blamed funeral directors for giving the wrong advice to parents:

“I feel for them and apologise if [parents] have been given wrong advice which led them to choose cremation and not have the option of burial …  I tried my best to make sure that the message got out that there might not be the opportunity of recovering ashes after the cremation and we provided alternatives but unfortunately relied on frontline professionals. I must emphasise the crematorium staff didn’t make funeral arrangements.”

Bell also blames politicians:

“Sadly there’s no legal status for non-viable foetuses and as an industry we have worked hard to try and raise standards but to raise standards we need the legislation to go with that. I think the industry needs clear legislation as to what the procedures are. There’s no legal definition as to what ashes are – I think this needs to be addressed.”

The record shows that there is no agreement among cremation authorities about what ashes are, either:

“The FBCA (Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities) consider that ashes consist of cremulated bone to the exclusion of any other source of ash obtained from the burned coffin, clothing or soft toys cremated along with the baby. The ICCM (Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management) considers ashes to include all ashes from the cremation, both cremulated bone as well as ash from
items which were mementos or part of the fabric of the baby’s last resting place. Tim Morris, Chief Executive of the ICCM, was interviewed on camera about this distinction by Mark Daly of the BBC in a broadcast in April 2013 when he indicated that: “I have only heard about this distinction in the last few months.” “[Source]

Things have subsequently gone from bad to worse in Aberdeen, where it is now alleged that babies were cremated together with adults — playing to the direst public misgivings about what really goes on in crematoria.

In England only one case has been reported so far but you wonder how many others might have been and may yet be. The culprit is Emstrey OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcrematorium in Shrewsbury where only 1 in 30 sets of ashes have been given to babies’ families since 2004. The fact that it is run by Co-operative Funeralcare is at best semi-relevant. The verdict of a former Emstrey manager, Ken West, is devastating:

“I see absolutely no reason why cremated remains were not produced. The issue for me is they were not captured. They were either in the flue system or workers didn’t take the trouble to check whether there were any ashes before introducing the next cremation. So it’s very possible those babies’ ashes got mixed in with the next cremation.”

On this blog Ken West has written:

“I was a cremator operator in the 1960′s and ashes were always returned for baby or infant cremations … At no time have I ever accepted that no ashes exist. Had I accepted that then I would have considered cremation unacceptable and advised burial as the better option.”

If it has been demonstrated that ashes can always be retrieved, why does the ICCM continue to advise: “The hospital must inform parent(s) that ashes may not be recovered from cremation.”? And why does the FBCA advise: “In cases where bereaved parents desire the cremation of an infant or of foetal remains, they should be warned that there are occasions when no tangible remains are left after the cremation process has been completed.”

Elish Angiolini’s Mortonhall Investigation report expresses impatience with this muddled thinking: “The existence or otherwise of ashes following the cremation of foetal remains ought to be a matter of fact; either there is some residue from the human tissue or there is not.”

The FBCA states that there may be no tangible remains left after cremation because of “the cartilaginous nature of the bone structure.”  This sounds scientific, but is it? Compare it with this:

Experimental research has been undertaken to quantify the percentage of bone (bone ash or calcined bone) remaining in human skeletons following cremation. Trotter and Hixon (1974) studied skeletons from an early foetal period through to old age. This included 124 male and female foetuses of American Caucasoid and Negroid ancestry, which ranged in age from 16 to 44 weeks gestational age. It was possible to record the ash in even the youngest and lightest skeletons, the lightest being a white male of 16 weeks gestation which weighed 3.4 g pre-cremation. [Source 2.8]

Note: the above research is all of forty years old.

Compare the FBCA statement also with this. In a photograph of the cremated remains of a 17-week-old foetus at Seafield crematorium:

Bones [are] identifiable on the image include the femur, humerus, mandible, ilium (pelvic bone), the pars lateralis and possibly basilaris of the occipital bone (skull), radius, ulna, clavicle and a minimum number of 12 ribs. It is likely that the fibula is also present but it is difficult to distinguish clearly. [Source 2.8]

Given the extraordinary sensitivity of this issue, the recommendations of the Bonomy report are going to make for very interesting reading. We can’t give you a link because we are without an internet connection today. We believe this will take you to it.

It’s all aboard for the Ideal Death Show

Monday, 16 June 2014




First off, we think we’ve got the name right at last. The Ideal Death Show. It’s sufficiently edgy to be eyecatching without outraging some of our supporters.

We’ve got the right location. Brum. Big city. Easy for you to get to.

We’ve got brilliant community contacts to advertise the event locally.

The show runs from Friday afternoon to Sunday lunchtime. The Good Funeral Awards (optional) occupy the Saturday evening. Come for the weekend, or just for the Saturday.

This show is for everybody. People love it because it gives them the chance to meet up with old friends and make new ones. It’s a place to debate ideas and share knowledge. Everyone goes home inspired. Nothing connects people better – which is why they come back year after year. It’s the social highlight of the funeral calendar.

How to describe it in a few words? Here’re some. Freethinking, diverse, open-minded and warmly welcoming. Unsolemn. Plainspeaking. Progressive. Creative. Great fun. Useful —


Most of the folk who come to the show haven’t got two ha’pence to rub together so we keep it as cheap as we can. The Good Funeral Guide and the Natural Death Centre give their work for free.

The public are invited and this year and lots are going to come. We want them to mingle and chat with the funeral people on a human level and on equal terms. No Us and Them, no experts dispensing expertise and ‘raising awareness’ –


We want the public to bring their curiosity and, in the process of learning about the death business, to discover that funeral people are just like them and that there can be nothing more normal than to die.

There will be exhibitors, all of them handpicked. But there won’t be the usual transactional scenario with stalls and selling, we want masses of mixing and chatting.

If you haven’t been invited to exhibit, let us know and we’ll see if we can fit you in.

The event is still coming together and will go on getting richer and richer. It’s the way we do it. There’s nothing cut and dried and corporate about this event, it grows organically, responsive to those who are coming. The talks and workshops are designed to be just as interesting to funeral folk as to the public.

Here’s just some of it so far – the tip of the iceberg:


Ximena Hernandez-Hudson

What Does Dying Feel Like? The Science

 Virgina Ironside

Let My People Go

 Anne Treneman

The Vital Importance of Being Buried

in the Right Place

 Caroline Goyder

How to Deliver a Great Eulogy

James Norris

Create Your Digital Legacy


 Claire Turnham, home funeral guide

Caring For Your Own: Your Final Act of Love


Annabel de Vetten

 There’ll be Death Cafes, of course. All sorts of things – a great richness of activities and happenings. You will be made welcome.

Book now and get our newsletter updates. And do, please, let us know what you think. For, as we say:



Cake by Annabel de Vetten

“It’ll save you the bother when I’m dead.”

Sunday, 15 June 2014



Jeremy Clarkson, writing in the Sunday Times about the death of his Mum:

Right in the middle of all that brouhaha about sloping bridges and Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe, my mum died.

So there I was, in Russia, in the middle of a Top Gear tour, trying to organise her funeral and tell the children and sort out all the legal stuff … and I knew that if I wept, which is what I wanted to do, because I was very close to my mother, the Daily Mirror would run pictures and claim they were tears of shame. It was a gruesome time.

And I knew that when I came home the BBC would still be bleating and the reporters would still be calling, and I’d have to go to her house and start sorting through her things. And where do you start with a job like that? Where did she keep her pension details, the deeds to her house, her insurance certificates? How do you cancel a Sky subscription? Did she have any shares? Premium bonds? And how do you find out if you haven’t got a sister who’s a lawyer?

Luckily, I do have a sister who’s a lawyer, but even though she could handle the paperwork, I’d still have to go through my mum’s things, and that would be a nightmare because I’m such a sentimental old sausage I even find it difficult to throw away an empty packet of fags. I think of the fun I’ve had smoking them and the people I’ve shared them with and I want to hold on to the wrapping as a keepsake, a reminder of happy times.

So what in God’s name would it be like in my mum’s house, surrounded by everything that made it hers, except her? And there’d be all those childhood memories. At some point it would be inevitable I’d find the egg cup I’d used every morning as a child and the cereal bowl with rabbits on it. That would tear my heart out.

At one stage I received a call from a middle-ranking BBC wallah saying they’d had a letter from some MPs, asking if I was going to be sacked, and I really wasn’t paying much attention because I was wondering what on earth I’d do with the mildly fire-damaged Dralon chair that my dad had bought for £4 in 1972.

Even by the standards of the time it was a truly hideous piece of furniture, and the years had not been kind to it. Any normal person would give it to charity or use it as firewood. But it was the chair my dad used to sit in. It had a cigarette burn in the arm from the time when he’d nodded off while smoking. I couldn’t possibly give it away, or burn it. And I sure as hell didn’t want it in my house. So what would I do?

There is no single thing in the house of anyone’s mother that isn’t infused with a gut-wrenching air of sentimentality. It’s not just her jewellery or her clothes. It’s the little things as well. Her kitchen scissors, her bathroom scales, her flannel. Every single thing in each and every drawer is as impossible to discard as a first teddy bear.

I would need a very big lorry to handle all the stuff I’d need to bring home. I’d also need at least two months to go through it all. And I’d need about 4,000 boxes of Kleenex.

However, here’s the thing. My mum did not die unexpectedly. She’d known for some time that the cancer was winning and had therefore had time to put her affairs in order. A job she had undertaken with some gusto.

I’d always assumed that “putting your affairs in order” meant writing a will and remembering to reclaim your lawnmower from the chap at No 42. But in the weeks since my mum’s death I’ve learnt that actually there’s a lot more to it than that.

First of all, she had left many helpful instructions about what sort of funeral she wanted. No friends. No flowers. And no mention of God or the baby Jesus. My sister and I didn’t even have to guess what music she would have liked because she’d told us: Thank You for the Music, by Abba.

All the financial stuff was in a neat box with everything clearly labelled. And she hadn’t stopped there. Before she became too weak, she’d had a massive clear-out. Pretty much everything she owned had been thrown into a skip. “It’ll save you the bother when I’m dead,” she had said.

But by far and away the best thing she did in those last few months was to sort out a lifetime of photographs, putting the ones that mattered into albums and, crucially, writing captions. So now I know that the time-faded sepia image of a stern-looking woman in a nasty hat is my great-aunt and that the blurred picture of what might be a corgi was my grandad’s dog.

Ordinarily, I’d have thrown away the endless pictures of what appear to be a building site, but thanks to my mum’s diligence, I now know it was the house in which I was born. And how it had looked when she and my dad bought it in 1957.

I don’t know how long she had worked on her downsizing and the clear-out and the organisation of her things, but it’s something we should all try to do when we know the Grim Reaper is heading our way. Because not only does it spare our loved ones from the hassle of going through every single thing we’ve ever owned but also it spares them from the grief of deciding that the horse brasses and the Lladro figurines really do have to go to the tip.

The only trouble is that there’s one thing my mum did not sort out. Back in 1971 she made my sister and me two Paddington Bears. They were the start of what became a very successful business and they were very precious, but over the years one was lost.

I maintain the sole survivor is mine. My sister insists it’s hers. And she’s the lawyer . . . so I have the cereal bowl with the rabbits on it, and the Dralon chair.


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