Thoughts of a funeral-goer

Charles 13 Comments

It’s one step forward and two steps back as far as planning my own funeral is concerned.  I keep getting distracted.  However, I have (almost definitely) decided that I want to be cremated. 

So, it’s cremation; no embalming; and no viewings.  And a thorough medical examination to ensure that I am completely dead and not in a coma.  That leaves the relatively simple decision of what’s to be done with the ashes. 

One thing I most certainly do not want is to be placed in any kind of permanent receptacle, particularly not on someone’s mantelpiece.  Disturbingly, Daisy (who is now fully recovered from that mishap with her over-sized slippers) has several urns adorning her living room.  Each to their own, but there is something unsettling about treasuring mortal remains however attractively displayed.

Nor am I keen on those cupboards they have in the memorial ‘Everlasting Peace’ section of our local cemetery.  Interestingly, they’re known as sanctums thus creating the illusion that they are forever untouched.  Last summer, after my friend Jean’s cremation, her family arranged an informal gathering around the sanctum to ‘lay her to rest’.  The door was opened and…there was George!  I had forgotten he would be in there. 

Everyone nodded as if to say, ‘How lovely!  Reunited at last.’  As I bowed my head, in what I hoped looked like solemn reflection, I was thinking, ‘Together again for eternity (or for as long as the lease lasts) in a little cupboard.’ 

I then imagined myself grabbing Jean’s jar (I never much cared for George) running to the nearest tree and scattering her remains with gay abandon.  Needless to say, decorum, good manners and a stiff knee prevailed.  A sharp look from Daisy told me that she knew what I had been thinking.

I am going to tell my children that I’d like to be scattered.  I’ll add it to my wish list.  In fact the more I think about it, the more I’m enjoying the idea of Jamie and Alex walking into the woods at dawn (yes, I’ll specify first light) and scattering me to the cold and bitter wind. 

This noble scene is slightly marred by visions of them having to avoid any dogs being walked at that time in the morning, and of them struggling to unscrew the lid of my plastic jar (no point in wasting money on a scattering tube, or God forbid, an ornate urn).  I’m also fairly sure they would forget to check the wind direction.  Neither of them is very practical.   

The main advantage of being strewn in a random area of woodland, is that there’s then no place they may feel duty bound to visit on Mother’s day, or any other day when they should be spending time with their offspring or enjoying themselves.

It’s Mr Mollington who is beginning to cause concern.  Indeed, I’m rather worried that his plans may scupper my plans.  The other day he mentioned that he was going to be buried – he even started talking knowledgeably about double depth graves.  I shudder at the thought.  And how can we possibly agree on a suitable engraving for the memorial headstone?  Not to mention the fresh flowers each week. 

I find myself in agreement with Joyce Grenfell on this.  ‘Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone.’ However, I will ask for one flower to be broken.  All I need is a simple, inexpensive coffin (one that burns at the optimum rate) topped with a single rose; a lid that can be removed from the inside (just in case); and a plain cardboard container for the ashes.

Now for the funeral ceremony…


  1. Charles

    Good Morning-Good Lyra-Good Friday,
    Thank you for stimulating our senses …made me think..eternity in a small cupboard with Mrs J…eternity in a double hole in the ground…or strewn at dawn…( I wish you hadn’t made mention of dogs and trees though)…on the plus side if one were to be strewn to the cold and bitter wind, there’d be no tomb sweeping or grave dressing to mither about!

  2. Charles

    Thank you for your comments Mr J. Dogs and trees – nature’s way of telling us that we should be scattered at sea perhaps? What a splendid idea! But poor Jamie and Alex – they’re terribly prone to sea-sickness!

  3. Charles

    Such practical wisdom, Lyra! Thank you.

    One can avoid the seasickness problem by using a friendly pier. Is there a seaside pier from which you could be launched? Preferably on a falling tide my dear, one doesn’t want to be washed up amidst the fishing line and plastic bags.

    Failing that, a lovely beach, an ebb tide on a windy day (off-shore…) should give all concerned a day to remember.

    “Of his bones are coral made…” I increasingly tend to the idea of the sea as my recycling agent.

    I very much agree about obviating the pressure on offspring to visit, tend etc, unless that is exactly what they want to do, and of course they don’t like much talking about it, do they? (If they are unconcerned or even eager to discuss your departure, watch out, you may be over-insured…)

    Those walls of uniform cells and plaques at cemeteries are not inspiring, are they, however nicely tended.

    You may like to know that the lads at my local crem assure me that those willow coffins flame up quickly and really well. I daresay the lid could be removable, but I hope you are not torturing yourself with visions drawn from TV or horror films – apparently the medics nowadays are pretty good at telling if we have turned up our toes for good, or if we are merely indulging in Attention-Seeking Behaviour. (Not that you’d ever do such a thing, I’m sure.)

    Charles posted recently about a lady in rural China who climbed out of her coffin and wandered home just before they were coming to bury her…one doesn’t wish to be in the least patronising, but one feels that sort of thing is a little less likely in an English suburb….

  4. Charles

    Gloria – thank you. Sadly East Sheen (where I now live)is not close to the sea but we’re not far from the Thames. And just up the road we have an excellent view of the boat race! So tomorrow, when I’m watching, I’ll see if I can spot any suitable places along the bank for strewing. Throwing them from Putney Bridge during the race (or any other time for that matter) may be a little ostentatious.
    As for torturing myself – fear not! However, my trust in various professionals has been sorely tested over the years, with medics at the top of the list for being inattentive and presumptious.

  5. Charles

    James – I’ve just seen an earlier comment you made asking me to consider if there can be such a thing as a good funeral. I will give this some thought and report back!

  6. Charles

    Mr Callender – what a conundrum you’ve given me! I was hoping that a wish list (my ‘death-wish-list’?) would be helpful. I’d hate to think I was upsetting anyone by being too prescriptive. Perhaps when my list is complete I ought to put everything in order of importance. However, this wouldn’t solve the problem of not wanting to have my dead body viewed, because that would be top of the list. When the time comes, I sincerely hope that my children are the last people to see me alive, not the last ones to see me dead.
    But your comment has helped me to answer James’s question about whether there can be such a thing as a good funeral. Perhaps it would be one where the living know the deceased’s wishes but are also encouraged to add their own special touches to the send-off. I am spending time with my children and my grandchildren this weekend – if there is a lull in conversation, I shall ask them!

  7. Charles

    I enjoyed reading this post. It does seem to me that the implications of choosing cremation should be looked into a little further before settling on that course…
    There are environmental arguments against cremation – individually the cost of polluting the air and using up finite fossil fuel might not seem to have any real impact on the planet, but collectively the hundreds of thousands of people in the UK alone who choose this way have a significant impact.
    Then there is the spiritual side of a funeral, which is not well served by a 20 minute slot at a rather impersonal, production-line, incineration facility.
    This topic was very well discussed by Ken West in the last issue of the ICCM Journal, which I would urge all to read (sorry can’t find it online).
    Why not let the soil recycle your molecules without all that intense energy . If you are concerned about grave tending duties, you need not choose a burial ground with marked graved – most of ours don’t. The sheep and the farmer take care of keeping the grass down (your molecules contribute to the future sustainability). But we have found that families like somewhere that the names and dates of people buried there are written and recorded – not forgotten.
    A funeral in the natural surroundings of the countryside can be a private, gentler, more inclusive occasion (make sure to include dogs and young children). It can provide inspiration for creativity far beyond the inhibitions of a seated crematorium service. Far better than a “let’s get this bit over and done with” crem service.
    I have been to quite a few funerals now and I am convinced that there is such a thing as a ‘good funeral’ – but the circumstances surrounding the death go a long way to dictating that.

  8. Charles

    Lyra, I feel James has given us all food for thought here, but there is, if he’ll pardon me, what looks to me like an oversight in what he says about crematorium funerals.

    A cremation doesn’t have to be preceded by a 20-minute funeral ceremony in the crematorium chapel/hall/dreary room. It can be preceded or followed by a funeral ceremony wherever you like, just as Chgristians can have a church funeral ceremony and then a committal at the crematorium.

    And surely our molecules are usually buried too deep in the subsoil to be much use to sheep, grass, etc. We bury too deeply for proper composting and re-use – although I understand that we don’t have to go down as deep as six feet, by law.

    Finally, I also understand that, even at the depths we are buried, over time our mortal remains give off methane, a much worse global warming substance than CO2.

    Well, that’s enough half-understood chemistry etc from me, Lyra, and I’m not necessarily arguing for cremation, I simply think that the argument is a little more complex, environmentally speaking, than enthusiasts for “green”/”natural” burial sometimes make out.

    I agree entirely with James that there is such a thing as a good funeral, and I have been at some, even at a crematorium! But one person’s good funeral is another person’s travesty, it’s so hard to generalise.

  9. Charles

    Lyra, in response to Gloria M:

    The methane myth – this argument is put forward by the cremation / resomation / promession industry. However scientific advice on this is that any methane from decomposition is broken down in the soil where it is beneficially converted into nutrients. It does not enter the atmosphere or cause harm.
    Our experience in the field is that there is often noticeably greener grass above the grave in the first year or so after the burial.

    On crematorium services: A small committal gathering at a crematorium followed by a larger and hopefully more uplifting memorial service still leaves the crematorium chapel experience – the concern that you don’t know those people milling around – are they with us? Are these our flowers? Am I in the right chapel? The isolation of the family in the procession and seating arrangements. And those dreadful automatic curtains or descending coffin as the fake committal moment that so many loathe. You can of course say goodbye at the church/hall/gathering place and send off the coffin to the crematorium for incineration, which some do.

    I agree with Gloria that there is need for expert scientific research to provide impartial advice on the environmental pros and cons of the options available to us – step forward the NDC or the ICCM?

  10. Charles

    This is much more complicated than I imagined. Even a walk with Colin (aka Mr Chunky)didn’t help to clarify matters. However, I am very taken with the idea of family and friends (including children and dogs) walking into the woodland to bury me. Perhaps followed by lunch in a local pub…omit a formal ceremony altogether? Oh dear, back to the drawing board!

  11. Charles

    James. I think that you are indeed right about methane being absorbed by bacteria on the way up to the surface. There is no doubt however, that shallow burial means a quicker decomposition and speedy return to nutrients that everyone wants. The NDC’s position regarding cremation is well known; the use of fossil fuels is unsustainable, full stop. Natural cremation however, would be. There would be some C02 released, and fillings need to be removed.
    Lyra, I like your phrase about your family being the last to see you alive and not the first dead, but I didn’t see either of my parents after they died, and as a result of this and other elements of well meaning but misguided post mortem grief mismanagement, I became an undertaker. The head knows, but the heart might refuse to believe. It needs to be gently enlightened.

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