A real funeral

Charles 6 Comments

When Fiona Hughes died of cancer in September ’10, her sister Dina, her family, and Melanie, Fiona’s daughter, followed their hearts and gave her a colourful, creative, fear-free and happily sad funeral which embodied the customs, culture and language of her family (if not those of their funeral director).

She wrote the following uplifting account and sent it to Rosie Inman-Cook at the Natural Death Centre.

I have never liked funerals & in particular I have never liked being anywhere near a coffin let alone touch one.

My sister Fiona died of cancer, she was 52 years old & left an only child, Melanie, of 13 yrs old.

Almost all the family were with her throughout the last two weeks of her life & on the 4th September 2010 she decided to leave us to do much more important things in the universe.

We have always been a very open family & to be honest we are pretty unconventional & some might say completely mad! So before Fiona died, when the nurses at the MacMillan unit told us we could ‘brighten’ up her hospital room with some nik naks, we took them at their word & went straight to our local party store and bought bunting, strings of floating butterflies, beach scenes, a palm tree, a blow-up flamingo (which we named ….) and lots of balloons which we got friends to draw pictures on. We brought pictures & ornaments from home & proceeded to ‘pimp out’ her room in style. When the nurses returned to her room they couldn’t believe how literally we had taken them & from then on Fiona’s room became known by hospital staff & patients alike as ‘the party room’.

As we knew Fiona was dying, we started to talk about funeral arrangements but we all had difficulty with the thought of a conventional funeral. None of us liked coffins; we all felt that they were sterile, characterless, cold & impersonal & none of us liked the rigid formality that always seemed to be associated with funerals.

We all hated that moment that the coffin goes past you down the aisle & personally I have always found myself crying uncontrollably, even becoming hysterical at that particular moment. I have always felt embarrassed & ashamed of my behaviour as I have often behaved like this at funerals of people I barely know, it has even happened at a funeral of someone I had never met!

Over the years I have come to realise that my tears are not really authentic, they are not tears related to the person who has died, they are not tears of sadness & loss but they are tears of shock & fear & of the taboo that surrounds death. I realised that at that moment that the coffin goes past, I have only ever been able to think about the fact that there is a dead body inside & it has always terrified me & I realise that my feelings are not truly genuine & I have never liked the fact that I am operating out of fear.

I have given this much thought over the years & how much it bothers me that, for some reason, with a conventional funeral, you don’t seem to have permission to be yourself. It seems like the event is so controlled by convention & by funeral directors that it leaves little room for originality and for a sense of feeling for the character of the person who has died. If it weren’t for the eulogies & music it would be hard to differentiate between one funeral & another. In my opinion most funerals seem to be cookie cutter and almost totally empty of any positive energy.

I have often considered how strange it is that we go to such incredible lengths to personalise a wedding, to make it ‘say’ everything about you as a person & as a couple, yet with funerals people seem to spend little time considering what we want to ‘say’ about an entire person’s life. I doubt any bride-to-be would be happy with being shown a handful of wedding dresses & then expected to pick one & very possibly under pressure to pick the most expensive & I doubt any couple would be happy to have one choice of vehicle to take them to & from the church & maybe even told that they didn’t have any other choices.

Obviously a lot of this has to do with the lack of time for preparation for a funeral & the incredible emotional distress that people are dealing with. I think this is why we look to the funeral directors to take the weight off & to handle everything. The danger here though is that the funeral directors can ‘take over’ & at times take advantage of the vulnerable state of the mourning relatives. I don’t think people realise how much choice there is out there & how relatively easy it is to personalise a funeral so they end up taking the funeral directors advice & leave it at that. But I feel that we can then be left with a hollow memory of our beloved’s send off which is a real shame.

In the case of Fiona’s funeral we felt we were in a dilemma, we didn’t want to go with the formality of a conventional funeral, but not realising we had any alternatives we felt we had to make the best of a far from ideal situation.

We ended up deciding that the only way we could cope & the only way we could avoid a coffin, was to have Fiona cremated without anyone present & then have a church service with her ashes & only have the immediate family members present, which would amount to about 11 people. We felt that at least this way we wouldn’t have to have a coffin & we could make it a more intimate & personal affair. We then decided we would have a personalised service at the venue where we would have the reception that would be run by the family.

However, my daughter Natalie, mentioned how it wasn’t giving Fiona’s friends a proper chance to say goodbye & that we would somehow be cheating them out of the experience.

Having spoken at length with Natalie & the family, we ended up agreeing that Natalie was right. But this then left us with the whole ‘coffin dilemma’ as we felt it would be very odd to have a full church service with just an urn of ashes, but we still couldn’t come to terms with having a coffin which still left us in a state of conflict. We really didn’t know what to do. We felt that maybe we were just going to have to have a coffin & deal with it, but we really weren’t happy about it.

Then I started thinking about whether they might be any alternatives. I knew that cardboard coffins existed and we thought about using one of them, so that at least we could go down the environmental route, which might soften the experience & make it a bit more ‘friendly’ & approachable.

So I started scanning the Internet & came across a couple of sites that supplied cardboard coffins. I noticed the coffins that were already painted & how you could commission one to be decorated to order. This started to feel like a real possibility. Now at least we could make the coffin say something about Fiona.

Fiona always liked to think that she was a mermaid so we thought that we could commission a coffin with a mermaid on it. I started to feel excited, as now there was some creativity flowing and it seemed like we could have some control over what we could do for Fiona’s final send off.

Then I noticed the plain cardboard coffins. On their own I thought they looked a little basic & to be honest I thought it might look a little like we had just put her in a shoe box & that it might look a little sad & lonely. But then I wondered whether there was the possibility of decorating & graffitying the coffin ourselves. This was an idea I had had years ago but had never thought it might actually be possible.

I phoned the company, Greenfield Creations, & rather nervously asked if we could decorate a cardboard coffin ourselves. I really wasn’t sure how this suggestion would be taken & I thought he might think I was off my trolley, but to my delight he told me this was perfectly possible. It was such a relief to know that perhaps we weren’t so weird & that other people do have unconventional ideas. Now I was very excited & told the rest of the family about this possibility. They were all enthusiastic & thought it was a great idea.

Then we suddenly realised that this thought changed everything.

We realised that if we were going to have a coffin & decorate it ourselves then all of a sudden we wanted lots of people to be at the church. We wanted people to be able to participate, to send us their poems, pictures etc & even sign the coffin at the church.

It went from us wanting to keep the service very small because of dread & fear to wanting to make it huge because of love, participation & creativity. Now we wanted to celebrate & the whole energy surrounding her funeral arrangements started to change. Now we started looking forward to her funeral instead of dreading it.

So we had the coffin delivered to the funeral directors and armed with a basket full of coloured markers, paints, sellotape, scissors, glitter glue, photos etc. about seven of us all went along to our first decorating experience.

I wasn’t sure how I would feel when we saw the coffin for the first time. To be honest I did feel a little un-nerved but it certainly wasn’t anything like I had experienced in the past.

We filed into the tiny room & we each chose a section of coffin to work on. At first it was a little difficult, like staring at a blank canvass, but then as we made a start, the ideas just started flowing.

Melanie, Fiona’s daughter, started first by drawing flowers on the lid that trailed on over the side. My sister Mandy started drawing an abstract mermaid, Natalie my daughter drew a whole ‘Finding Nemo’ scene & I started cutting out photos & poems that people had sent us, while others wrote their own messages.

After about ten minutes my elder sister Mandy looked at me & smiled & she said ‘isn’t this lovely’ & I smiled & nodded in agreement.

We were only there for about half an hour that first day but that half an hour was the most peaceful, most amazing experience that I can even begin to explain. For the first time, since the trauma surrounding Fiona’s death, we felt calm & joyful. Not one of us expected to feel what we felt.

We went back three more times to continue with the decorating & each time was a profoundly uplifting experience. We sat on the floor of the chapel of rest surrounded by pens, paint, glitter, scissors & glue & had the time of our lives, often laughing out loud at the ideas we were having to decorate the coffin.

After each visit we all remarked to each other what an incredible experience it was & we all started to realise that decorating Fiona’s coffin was going much deeper than any of us could have expected.

At first thought, it just seemed like an unconventional, wacky creative idea that could add some humour to an otherwise sombre event. But we started to realise that the act of drawing & creating was allowing ourselves to express ourselves & our grief. And the photos, messages & poems that people were sending to us to attach on their behalf was allowing us to participate in their energy & love for Fiona & was also in turn helping them with their grief by having their feelings displayed for all to see.

Unlike sympathy cards, which only the family get to read, we realised that this giant piece of artwork could be read by anyone who wanted to come to the funeral parlour or come early to the church to see her coffin. Now instead of this coffin representing fear it represented love, happy memories, joy & creativity.

We started to realise how symbolic the whole thing had become we likened it to the desire for some people to have tattoos and we also considered the deeper meanings behind why people do graffiti and that perhaps there might even be a tribal meaning behind what we were doing. It certainly was an incredibly loving experience where family & friends could get together in this one space & share their creativity. I don’t suppose you often get visitors to a chapel of rest who stay for several hours who had as good a time as we had!

We also realised how lovely it was for friends of Fiona’s from abroad who could not attend the funeral, but could send us a memento for us to attach on their behalf, how in some way this was able to make them present at the funeral despite their absence.

We noticed how everyday that we went to the funeral parlour Melanie became less & less afraid. She told us that if had it been a regular coffin she would not have gone anywhere near it. She said she still had some uncomfortable feelings but simply being in such close contact to the coffin helped her. She started to see how the energy of all our artwork was literally transforming the coffin before our very eyes from something linked to death to something linked with life. It almost became a ‘living thing’ as it started to express so much energy from so many people.

For me it became a transformational experience & I know the other members of my family feel the same. And it did not end with just decorating at the funeral directors. We chose to have Fiona’s coffin taken to the church in our camper van, which we also decorated and we asked our local paper to come & take pictures & do a report on it so that others might learn that there are more choices available to you than many people realise.

I will never forget the camper van arriving at the church with my husband Scott driving it. I will never forget seeing Fiona’s coffin in the back of the van & how happy I felt when my son & Scott & other members of the family carefully took her out of the van. The coffin looked amazing & I just remember feeling excited as they took her into the church.

And then the decorating continued in the church.

We had decided to have Fiona taken to the church an hour and a half before the ceremony so that people could see the coffin. We supplied pens, glue & sellotape for last minute attachments & graffiti. Right up to about 30 seconds before the service people were milling around the coffin, looking for a space to write something or attach a last minute memento. Even Melanie’s friends, also 13 yrs old, came to write on the coffin. This was all the more incredible as obviously at this point there was a body inside. It caused us all to think how amazing it was that no one, in any way, was afraid to get close to it – even knowing that Fiona was inside.

I remember standing there smiling so hard, feeling so happy at the site of all these people surrounding her coffin & how amazing it looked.

When everyone settled into their seats, I looked at the coffin & all I could feel was joy & true, authentic sadness at the loss of my beloved sister. It felt so right, I did not shed a single fearful tear that day. Every tear came from my heart, from my sorrow & from my sense of loss. At no time did I ever feel revulsion or fear for the coffin & at no time did I find myself fixated on the fact that a body was inside the coffin. The only thing that was present in the church that day & in the massive celebrations afterwards was love & sadness.

My mother pointed out that at a regular funeral the coffin is largely ignored. I myself have always felt a sense of separation as though there is some sort of invisible barrier between yourself & the coffin, instead Fiona’s coffin became a focal point & an integral & important part of the service & it felt very holistic.

I believe this experience has helped massively in my sense of grief & I can honestly say that the experience of decorating Fiona’s coffin is one of the most memorable, transformational & uplifting experiences of my life. I also believe it could be an incredibly therapeutic & healing experience for children.

For most people a funeral is a morbid, dark, sombre occasion & a day that you ‘just have to get through’ this was far from the case for us. Yes, we shed many tears but it has left us with extraordinary memories of togetherness, fun, love & celebration.

As you can imagine I feel passionately about this now. I have taken a copy of the newspaper article & some photos of the coffin to our local MacMillan unit where Fiona died & they are excited about it & are passing the information on to the family support team. They are looking at investigating the idea to help children, as I believe this has truly far reaching potential for helping children come to terms with losing a parent or other loved one.

Fiona’s doctor is also very interested as he said he has never come across anything like it & says how he is interested in anything that helps to break down the taboos & fear surrounding death & making it an approachable subject.

As we had such a dreadful experience with our funeral director my daughter & I are now seriously considering whether we could open some sort of coffin decorating parlour or alternative funeral directors. We thought how wonderful it would be if we could supply beautiful premises to people to decorate their coffins in a supportive, friendly environment, where we could give advice on alternative funerals & encourage people to investigate other possibilities. We are not sure whether this is remotely possible but we are passionate enough & feel strongly enough to want to investigate it further.

Fiona was 52 when she died & the last 2 weeks of her life were hell on earth for us. We had to watch her die & the feeling of helplessness was profound. There was absolutely nothing we could do to stop her impending death, we had no control of her illness, she was too young to die, she was leaving a young child behind & it was a deeply traumatic experience. But how we said ‘goodbye’ was very much within our control & myself & my families’ experience was beyond amazing, despite having a funeral director that tried to block us, undermine us & mislead us at every turn.

I believe that, not only was there a financial issue with our funeral director, as he did not make anywhere nearly as much money out of us as he could have done, but there was also a ‘control’ issue & I think it is highly possible that this was even more of an issue than the money.

Our funeral director simply didn’t want to give away his power. He seemed to dislike intensely that we had minds of our own, that we were making unusual & unconventional choices & the more we asserted ourselves the more he seemed to dislike it. I am also suspicious of the fact that I am a female & stood up to him & that this factor may have come into it.

I think our decisions took away his significance & his perceived role as a funeral director, as all we basically needed him for was all the paperwork & physical collection & preparation of Fiona’s body. By decorating our own coffin, that was not supplied by him, & by using our own vehicle, we were taking away his ‘visibility’ & I think he had serious issues with giving that power up. He just wanted to control the whole thing from start to finish. I think his whole identity was tied up with doing things ‘his’ way & he just couldn’t conceive that someone may want to do it differently.

We have come to believe as a result of our experience, that it is distinctly possible that if people knew they had more choices, that people would much rather be in control of their loved ones ‘send off’. After all, death is inevitable; it is not something we can control, but having as much input as possible into the last opportunity we have to celebrate our loved ones life, gives us back some of that control & has certainly left us with some unforgettable memories & a day that reflected who Fiona was & who we are as a family & I can only hope that our experience can be used to help others.

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13 years ago

What a wonderful account of the whole experience, marred only by the several sentences beginning “As we had such a dreadful experience with our funeral director…” It’s amazing to think that there are still funeral directors out there who demand the whole control thing. Reading their advertising, you have to presume they are telling the truth when they say they embrace the modern way of thinking, but in reality it seems that only a handful actually are. I have literally just finished clearing up my premises after the most wonderfully uplifting ceremony. Pink balloons adorned every chair, beautiful flowers surrounded… Read more »

13 years ago

Nothing but respect, and admiration. I don’t think people like Dina need to set up as FDs (though I’m sure she’d be absolutely first-rate!) they just need to find the right FD. And we need to accept that some people will want the reserve, the trad, the largely ignored coffin (that’s quite a thought.) It’s not either/or, it’s what you want. Maybe we deed death advice centres to help us all develop our rituals and not rush into default mode. Not all of us have Dina’s uninhibited honesty and creativity, and we will need help to look around, make choices,… Read more »

Lisa Carlson
13 years ago

What a wonderful sharing. Thank you, Charles, for posting this to make it widely available. Twenty years ago, a pediatric oncology nurse in California found my first book “Caring for Your Own Dead.” She quickly discovered that the healing from grief of parents who had lost a child was much greater when they had a hands-on funeral experience. It took away the sense of helplessness, as Fiona’s sister reported. I’m guessing this is especially important for unexpected deaths–where the family had not had a chance to start their goodbyes–and for those deaths that seem particularly tragic–at a young age and/or… Read more »

Charles Cowling
13 years ago

Lisa, thank you for calling by. It really is something for this wee blog to entertain such an eminent visitor.

For readers who do not know Lisa, she is the founder and force in the US behind the Funeral Ethics Organisation http://www.funeralethics.org/board.htm and a longterm campaigner with the Funeral Consumers Alliance. She is presently revising Caring for Your Own (available at Google Books http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=TIAfawrhJM8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=lisa-carlson&source=bl&ots=RTL1HWcwMR&sig=qya_09nnXhTGU5eJrTlHUHaYfNk&hl=en&ei=UK-yTLLiFcWd4QaD5YWwBg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=13&ved=0CEMQ6AEwDA#v=onepage&q&f=false) and is a staunch and doughty advocate of home-arranged funerals.

Philip Evans
13 years ago

I would like to add that having read this touching story and the comments that followed, that there are some more FD’s joining the market which as Kingfisher puts, would be priveledged and honoured to help Dina and her family fulfill their wishes. I will be one of those FDs. I am a celebrant, about to start trading as an FD, and can be added to those like-minded few, as mentioned by Kingfisher above!

Scott Eck
Scott Eck
13 years ago

I could not be more proud of Dina Eck. Of course…I’m biased…she is my wife. It was the greatest celebration and party that I’ve ever attended. The fact that it was a funeral made it both poignant and moving.