Maggie Brinklow on what makes a good funeral

Charles Cowling

Everyone agrees that choice in funeral arrangements is a good thing. Even the UK’s most Jurassic undertakers are nodding their heads fervently on this one. They’ve come round at last (sort of). It’s the mantra in Funeralland: Personalisation x 3 (I can’t be bothered to type it).

There’s money in it, of course. Because personalisation (x3) can merely = accessorisation (x3). Instead of a bog standard box, why not this lovely one here, look, emblazoned with bluebells and kingfishers and a steam locomotive at 3x the price? There are lots of ways to personalise. We know what they are. They overlook making your own box, a very useful exercise in grief therapy. They overlook picking flowers from your own garden, not even tying them at the stems, and taking them home after, if it was a cremation.

There’s pressure in personalisation. The media love to pick up on wacky funerals, outrageous dress codes, iconoclastic songs. Trad is so last century, so gloomy, so boring.

This exerts an expectation. “So what are we going to do? He loved his veg, especially his leeks, so, er, let’s tell everyone to dress up as a leek??” There’s a tyranny taking hold.

There’s personalisation (x3) and there’s costly and unnecessary distraction (x3).

So it’s really good, this morning, to publish this post (the first of many, I hope) by Maggie Brinklow, a celebrant, member of the Association of Independent Celebrants (AOIC), who is keen to broaden her skills to include body preparation. She hopes shortly to do a course with the distinguished Mark Elliott, one of the best in his field, and I hope she’ll tell us all about that. Maggie says “I am passionate about putting the funeral back in the hands of the family.” She reminds us that trad has legs.

What makes a good funeral?

I’ve just got back home from a funeral.  Nothing unusual in that – I’ve been to so many family funerals that I’ve lost count.  I’ve also acted as a celebrant at quite a few as well, so what made this one any different?  Well, this is the first funeral where I acted as the Funeral Arranger, working on behalf of a small independent company.  It wasn’t anything special, a church service followed by interment in the local cemetery – a hearse and limo, the usual flowers and mourning dress and then back to the house for the ‘do’.

So, why am I writing about it?  Well, it got me thinking.  What makes a good funeral?  Is it the gold coffin with stretch hummers and 300 mourners or, is it the small intimate gathering, the cardboard coffin pulled on a hand bier while the children sing, before being laid to rest at a woodland site?  For me, it’s both and neither of these options – personally I’d like people to take up the alternative ideas, but it’s not my decision.  I offered the family the different venue, transport, coffin etc etc but, in the end, the traditional route was the right one for them.

Like I said, today’s funeral was nothing unusual, but it was what the family wanted, and really, isn’t that what it’s all about?

5 thoughts on “Maggie Brinklow on what makes a good funeral

  1. Charles Cowling

    Very helpful clarity here, Deathmatters (may I be so cheeky as to call you DM?)I think you’re right that before we can develop a better event, we need to identify the problem, which is what GFG and its comments columns, along with others in print, are looking to do, I guess.Seems to me the difficulty is that this can only be an evolutionary process, as we go about funerals. We can’t, obviously, call a halt to funerals whilst we decide what they are for and how to do them better! Meanwhile, it would be a help if a tight-arsed council near me would do something about their horrible crematorium, it really is an affront to civilization. (Whoops, sorry, that’s no help to anyone…)

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    Jonathan, in your opinion, have families never known what they want or is this a historical novelty – has it always been the case that some or other religion or tradition prescribed, imposed, suggested its model of a good funeral, a model which to greater or lesser degree was also “good”, that is, effective in achieving its aims, in resolving the problems of death?

    I don’t know – I suggest the average person or family has always needed help in this, but that in our times the models offered clearly no longer achieve their aims, they are ineffective; and at the same time there is a deliberate de-emphasizing of the whole thing.

    The two trends go hand in hand and support each other, because one can only tolerate meaningless rituals if the event they aim to explain/resolve is in any case of little importance.

    The “crunch” comes when the event is again realized as something significant – then the emptiness of the old forms becomes a problem and new solutions are asked for – with the heart, not just the practical mind.

    But we need to work this process out in the right order in order to get “good” new funerals: first, the problem, albeit an age-old one, must be defined anew, in contemporary terms; then the aims can be clear – are they social, transcendent, hygienic, political? Only at the third stage can new forms must be created to resolve the problems.

    We are in a muddle here and can’t get further until we clarify the problem. Then new solutions can then be found.

    The fact that death is becoming more common through demographic effects is a hopeful sign: it will be recognized again as a big problem. Then the renewal process can really begin – and we will find new ways that work – that has always been the case in history.

    Jonathan, I think, like Maggie, Charles and myself, you should also write a blog! But maybe not, then your comments wouldn’t appear here as often.

    (I’d be happy if you visited my site and commented too!

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    Thanks to Maggie and Jonathan – I’ve found, Maggie, that not only the quality of Charles’ postings, but the quality of responses from people like Jonathan and Rupert Callender are so thoughtful, sometimes very powerfully and movingly so, that they are of great help in my development as a celebrant.

    I agree that “personalisation” and “choice” seem to me two words that are often used to sell us things we don’t need or can’t use. A funeral isn’t an artefact, a product, something picked out of a selection box, an object of aesthetic dalliance, – it’s an unrepeatable event, which may be untidy (like life)or neat and ceremonious (as life occasionally is) but will need to be authentic and unique if it is to do its work, and that’s where the skill of the celebrant is really put to the test.

    Uniqueness isn’t about the life story told – after all, every life is unique, so that’s the relatively easy bit – it’s .. but really I’m only restating what Jonathan says above, much more eloquently, so I’ll stop.

    I realise that I’ve assumed you’re new to the GFG, when you may of course only be new to blogging yourself, in which case you’ll already know its value!

    Best wishes, and let us know how the body preparation work goes.

    Gloria M

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    This idea of ‘personalisation’ of a funeral is abhorrent to me. It is nothing more than a cross-infection from consumerism, and it hints at the assumption that ‘the’ funeral is an object sitting in a box on an undertakupermarket shelf waiting to be sold along with, yes, I can’t think of a better word, ‘accessories’.

    It’s not about choice, any more than is the food we throw away 30% of that we are beguiled into buying because it’s packaged and presented to tempt our fancy rather than address our hunger. It’s about a desperate attempt to do the right thing when we’ve no idea what that might be, and will leave us just as dissatisfied as will the microwavable crap we swallow. ‘A’ (not ‘the’) funeral doesn’t pre-exist like some garment to be altered ready to fit; it’s lovingly woven from the material of the person’s life, not from a pattern or a fashion but from a gut feeling of need, and it only fits because it’s made to measure. It doesn’t need personalizing.

    Hysteria has no place in a grieving ritual. At least, not the commercial kind.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    No, I don’t think it’s about what the family wanted, Maggie, because unless they were very unusual they won’t have known what they wanted. It’s about what the funeral did for the family, and how and why. Which is, of course, where you came in.

    It’s the quality of your presence and your attention to them that gives a family the imagination and the courage to come up with whatever works for them. They could have had exactly the same funeral if they’d bought it as a package; but without you there, it wouldn’t have been the same thing at all. Families are lost when it comes to a funeral, and you did this one a huge service by just being the navigator and not the director. They needed you and you were there for them. Well done.

    And remember, you didn’t ‘offer’ them the venue etc – all the available choices already belonged to the family before you even heard of them, and are not in your gift. What you did was simply point them out because they weren’t aware of them; what you offered them was not choice but guidance, which was the thing they most needed and were, as are all recently bereaved families, most at risk of being deprived of.

    Arranging a funeral can be the most rewarding experience for lots of reasons, but for me it’s not the spectacle of the event; it’s the chance to be nice to people who are so very open to simple kindness.

    Charles Cowling

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