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?

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11 years ago

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… Read more »

11 years ago

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… Read more »

11 years ago

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… Read more »

11 years ago

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… Read more »

11 years ago

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… Read more »