Ask not for whom the bill tolls

Charles 9 Comments

With thanks to Canadian Veggie

Posted by our irreligious correspondent Jonathan Taylor


Who is a funeral for? For the living, in the belief that the dead person won’t be there? For the dead, to help them into the afterlife? Or is it for both, so the living and the dead can do something for each other? At the very least, the living can prolong the dead’s pre-posthumous dignity by disposing of her unwanted body since she can’t do it for herself, but it’s less clear what she’s doing for them once she’s dead.

Even some atheists talk about what they want for their funeral. Perhaps we go along with such wishes so the still-living may end their days with a secure feeling about their own eventual event, which they’re going to miss but can at least anticipate meanwhile with some confidence.

You seldom hear it said: “It’s what she wants”, even from those who think she’s still around. Almost everyone feels a seemingly instinctive need to do ‘what she would have wanted’. It’s what funeral plans are sold on. But it is one thing to honour a person’s wishes; it’s quite another to honour a person. One involves ties of loyalty, perhaps even obligation; the other we do entirely of our own volition. When we honour her at her funeral in our own way, they are our needs, not hers, that we are seeing to, and she cannot dictate those needs to us. The question is; what is in whose gift, and to whom?

She can leave some dosh lying around on the off-chance we’ll want a funeral for her; fine, she’s probably right, and it will come in handy thank you. She can let us know her preferences, so we can choose whether to go along with them or not. But if she leaves us a ‘gift’ of a prearranged as well as prepaid funeral plan for her, is she not depriving us of our right to honour the ‘her’ who carries on within us, leaving us as passive mourners intimidated by the sanctity of her ‘arrangements’ (a favourite word of funeral plan sellers)? Grieving is active, not something that happens to us. We need something to do that says this is our party for her, at least as much as hers for us. Doesn’t she disempower us? Doesn’t she actually make it harder to grieve her?

Still, that’s not what she intended when she purchased her own funeral! She thought she was doing what it says in the brochures: ‘…saving us the anguish and grief of doing anything other than remembering her’ (Golden Leaves). She innocently bought the line that says we can sit back and enjoy her choice of hymns and coffin and budget without having to ‘worry’. She also bought into the idea that our having (choosing) to put together a funeral ceremony for her would actually impede our grieving rather than facilitate it.

It plays on and perpetuates the notion that arranging a funeral can only be a burden, best given to others to carry for us while we act like helpless children impatient for it to be all over and done with. It disables us from improving the healing quality of her funeral by our own involvement, and prevents funerals in general from evolving. The fact that it’s sold partly on its being cheaper at today’s prices only cheapens it further.

She is, as I say, entitled to invite us to carry out her ‘wishes’ on her behalf if we like. It’s a different thing to pay someone to arrange things so that we must, because then it would seem an act of defiance on our part, an insult to her love and concern for us, to override her plan. Doesn’t she, then, take for herself what is rightfully ours? Shouldn’t we reclaim it from her, even if that leaves her investment wasted and us out of pocket and feeling guilty?

The wish to be at her funeral is ours; our gift to her, not hers to us. We can hold it, rather than just attend it, to help us understand how we will bring ourselves to face her death. She cannot tell us what she symbolizes for us now; that is our task, to discover once she’s dead. We do it to establish what her life and her death imply to our past and our future; to thank her for her part in our lives, not to be indebted to her for it.

So do funeral plan providers play on the bad reputation of funerals by selling a palliative for what could otherwise be a healing event? Do they perpetuate the image of the funeral as a tired old painful procedure instead of a brand new constructive ritual? And do we play into their hands with our concern for our offspring when we buy them, and undermine our own goodwill by leaving our family with the lasting problem of not having had “…to worry about arranging the funeral and finding the money, at a time when they are coming to terms with their loss” (Cruse Bereavement Care funeral planning leaflet)?


  1. Charles

    Not so much a post, more a manifesto. Brilliant, thankyou Cadaverous, because it captures what a funeral should do for the bereaved, and why too much rigid pre-planning sucks the life (!) out of our final rite of passage. And for God’s sake, Cruse really should know better!
    That quote looks as though it came straight from the marketing department of a well-known chain of end-of-life trivialisers.

    The bit about what a funeral should do for the bereaved could most beneficially be part of a training programme.

    If we do other than leave behind helpful suggestions and useful information about our funerals, we are forgetting that funerals are for the bereaved. Surely, even if you think a funeral rite is essential in order to get a soul into the next world, you can accept that a funeral is also for the bereaved.

    And if you don’t see a funeral as a kind of Cape Canaveral for the soul, then it’s all and only for the bereaved. The people you loved. Or maybe, the people you want to boss about for one last time?

  2. Charles

    Yes, Cadaverous, yes. What other event held in our honour would we presume to plan ourselves? Only insane dictators do that.

    Interesting to note that Cruse regards coming to terms with the loss as having nothing whatever to do with arranging a funeral. What on Earth is a funeral for, in that case?

  3. Charles

    Quite so, Charles, and I’ll be emailing Cruse in a minute (well, a Devon minute) to draw its attention to the anomaly of an organisation dedicated to alleviating complicated grieving gaining funds from a scam whose effect may well be to complicate grieving. Of course, we’d need a study to prove it – are you reading this, Colin Murray Parkes? Your methods are exemplary.

    ps: How did I get to be known as ‘Cadaverous’?

  4. Charles

    But he is somewhat cadaverous in the flesh!

    I mean that in the best way possible Jonathan, you know that.

    We try to sell funeral plans. We offer Peace Funeral’s groundbreaking plans, ethically invested and completely bespoke. Despite these being the best available in every sense I still end up talking folk out of them, (please note: John Mallatratt of Peace Funerals is the chair of the NDC, Chairman Mal as he is known to us, so we are involved on a number of levels) but large American corporations aside, what is really happening with funeral plans is an attempt by the big boys to completely corner the market by selling everyone alive over the age of fifty a funeral plan. Sadly, it’s working. Independents are forced to sell them just to keep up, and to add some capital to their business when they face their own retirement. Your business is not just sold on your good name, but increasingly how many pre arrangements you have in the bank. Sad but true. Due to my legendary sales skills, we have about ten. Just enough to pay for Dignitas..

  5. Charles

    It strikes me that the chief problem here is that marketeers have got hold of this pre-planning business. Their dark arts have inflated a very natural instinct – to ‘make provision’ for your funeral so that it is not a financial burden on the family – into this unreal idea that it is somehow right to relieve them of all care and responsibility. It’s not only an intrusion it’s like being played – makes you angry to think of it. But…
    When we were all much poorer I remember my mum and my gran with their Prudential life insurance books, and the pennies a week put by so that there was just enough saved to pay for the funeral.
    We’ll be poor again soon and people will want and need the simple schemes to ease their minds. Good to hear that there are ethical models out there.

  6. Charles

    Impeccably and persuasively argued, and I’d not quibble with the likely disempowerment of survivors faced of a ‘funeral plan’.
    However nothing in a funeral plan is written in stone – it’s one car or two – and is it the ‘Highgrove’ weave or the ‘Westmister’ casket? It’s just a money thing, and most everything else is completely flexible (unless you want to change from a co-op or ‘Dignity’ branded FD to A.N.Other, of course).
    I also experienced an 80-year old lady saying she wanted to die and planning her funeral with us, who completely revived herself, bought a new two tone ‘Smart’ car, went to Israel, Barbados, New York City, did talks at WI groups saying how life enhancing it is to plan your own funeral. She is now working as a film extra – exhausted but happier than ever.
    But ……. your point is very well made.

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