Free yourself and take your time

Charles 14 Comments


Poppy’s Funerals was launched by Poppy Mardall because she wanted to help people take creative control of their funerals. She’s a newcomer to Funeralworld. She is neither steeped in it, neither has she been moulded by its immemorial customs, and this is either a very bad thing or a very good thing. She has strong feelings about the importance of real funerals and worthy sendoffs, which is why she launched her direct cremation service in June. She’s already up and running.

Here, she describes her rationale, a full version of which you can find here. Old school undertakers may like to look away now. 

Funeral directors should not be dictating to celebrants. It’s the equivalent of The Rolling Stones having their set list dictated by the Roadies. It’s the wrong way round.

So my first battle cry is ‘Get the ceremony out of the crematorium!’. Yes the coffin needs to go there if you want a cremation, but what has that got to do with a meaningful ceremony?

And my second is, ‘Give creative control to the people leading the ceremony!’ – the family and the celebrants, not the people organising the logistics of the body.

Poppy’s Funerals launched our ‘simple cremation’ service in June this year as one way of solving these problems. Our hope is that it will provide families with a simple way to make the funeral ceremony more personal, meaningful and generally better. We separate the cremation from the funeral ceremony. We do the work of a funeral director, taking responsibility for the simple, respectful and affordable cremation. All traditional funeral accessories are stripped away. We do not embalm. The coffins we use are unvarnished wooden coffins with calico lining. The family can of course accompany the coffin to the crematorium. We then deliver the ashes to the family so they can hold the funeral ceremony, celebration of life or memorial with the ashes wherever, whenever and however they want.

We are saying, liberate yourselves from holding the ceremony at the crematorium. You do not need professional funeral directors at your ceremony. You do not need to worry about time limits or paperwork. Take your time to find a celebrant (we’d love to help you) who is a perfect fit with your family. The body has been cremated so all time constraints are off. Take your time. Do it your way.

It would not suit a family who felt the presence of the body was essential to the funeral ceremony. But how many of us feel that?

A recent experience has shown me what is possible.

Mary approached us because she wanted a simple cremation for her husband Richard. Mary loved Richard dearly. But for Mary, when Richard died, his body became a shell.

She felt the crematorium was impersonal and alien, and not the best place to celebrate Richard’s life. She wanted his ashes, rather than his body, to be present at the celebration of life.

So Mary asked us to organise the simple and respectful cremation of Richard’s body, with no pomp or traditional funeral accessories, or their associated costs. And for us to return Richard’s ashes as soon as possible so she could get on with organising the celebration of his life.

With the ashes, Mary is now free to hold the celebration of Richard’s life wherever she wants. She might hold it in the pub, at home or in the garden. She is taking some time to make decisions and plan. And because the urgency of dealing with the body is over, she can. Everyone who loved Richard has some time to find the poem, write the eulogy, or learn the piece of music they want to play to honour their friend.

Mary contacted three celebrants to find the person who was just right. The celebrant she has chosen is helping her create a personal and meaningful ceremony to mark Richard’s life. There is no need for funeral directors to be present at the ceremony.

It will be a family, and celebrant-led affair.

Poppy Mardall



  1. Charles

    I have done quite a few ceremonies without a body and, as a result, without a funeral director (e.g. when the body was donated to medical science). Most of the ceremonies were not very different from what I usually do but it was lovely not to be worrying about a time slot. Interestingly three of these memorial ceremonies took place at a crematorium because this is what suited the family – they wanted it to feel like a ‘proper funeral’. However, it’s all about choice and what Poppy is providing will suit many people. I have also done ceremonies where the body was already at the crematorium. No funeral director/hearse/bearers/procession. Not for everyone but good to have the choice.

  2. Charles

    I love those funerals where the coffin is already waiting. Sets a completely different mood and creates a quality of intimacy with the dead person. Not for everyone, of course. Each to their own, of course, and I hope FDs and celebrants explore this option. Having said which, the very first one I did, the FD completely ignored the request and gave the coffin the full processional monty. Couldn’t bear to be robbed of his moment of glory.

    The way ahead for funerals: shared status between FDs and celebrants? Economic implications, of course…

  3. Charles

    Congratulations Poppy on such an articulate, calm, moving piece on how a client wanted a different type of funeral and how you delivered it. The funeral industry must change and change quickly to take account of the growing number of people who want their lives, or those of their loved ones, celebrated in a personal, human and unique way.

  4. Charles

    As far as I’m concerned, choice is everything – so, well done Poppy.

    I recently discovered (through the grapevine) that we have been heavily criticised by another funeral director for putting on a ‘messy’ service at our local crematorium.

    Why was it messy? well, because the family carried the coffin and it was a bit wobbly!! Personally I thought it was a wonderful service (and so did the family).

    1. Charles

      Ooh – wobbly coffins! The most moving sight for me recently was watching a wobbly coffin. One of the bearers had been one of the man’s professional carers during the last year of his life. And she spoke during the ceremony.

    2. Charles

      It’s like that Monty Python sketch ‘not the comfy chair’ … Not the Wobbly Coffin.

      Most, if not all coffins wobble on their journey up the aisle. Princess Diana’s did much wobbling.

      The trouble is that most funeral directors are so busy looking pompous at the front of the procession that they don’t notice the coffin behind them.

  5. Charles

    Hats off to Poppy – it’s a breath of fresh air to read your words. For many years I was one of those sombrely attired (and yes Charles, I did have the whole dressage look, complete with hat and boots, though I left the riding crop out!) funeral conductors, and I paged the hearse for hundreds of funerals. Every time, I was concerned that the procession and the faux Victorian appearance of the whole funeral was immaculate, as I felt that this was essential for a ‘proper’ funeral. Time, experience and a certain amount of cynicism has changed my view completely, and I am now convinced that the whole shenanigans can be dispensed with without losing any gravitas.

    Last year, we held a ceremony for our mother some seven weeks after she had died at home. Her body was not there, it was somewhere in a London teaching hospital, where it remains to this day. We had no coffin present, no shiny cars, no floral tributes or black be-decked undertakers, yet without exception, everyone who attended found it to be the best ‘funeral’ they had ever been to.

    We chose a large function room in the village, sent invitations out, just as one would to any important occasion, decorated the room and involved all of the family in putting the service together. We had a memory table at the front that was laden with unique objects that belonged to Mum, a backdrop of hundreds of photos of her from babyhood through to just before she became ill on a giant screen, nine pieces of music, contributions from friends galore, scrapbooks on display of all the letters and cards we had received after she died – and all of this was only possible because we had had the time to plan it properly.

    If she hadn’t chosen to leave her body to medical science, or if it had been refused, then I would have been looking for a service just like the one Poppy provides so that we could have had a cremation and then still arranged a spectacular goodbye later. What you are offering Poppy is the gift of time, and I hope that every family who chooses to use your simple cremation service will benefit from this gift in just the same way that we did.

    Creativity, and control of the ceremony by the family – the look, feel, place, time and content all determined by the most important people of all – this is how a really good funeral comes together, but in the immediate aftermath of a death of someone close to us, how many people are able to think straight enough to be able to organise a day that will never be forgotten? I know I couldn’t have done so in the first weeks after Mum died.

    People need to know that they do have a choice, and that they don’t have to step onto the conveyor belt that slots them in to a funeral at the crem next week, with all the pressure that entails. Power to you Poppy!!!

    1. Charles

      Fran, you must have carried off your role with such magnificence that I wish you could be persuaded to give the occasional guest appearance. I think that, notwithstanding my weak-kneed weakness for a dominatrix, a Victorian funeral, done well, is a marvellous spectacle. I’m not sure about this faux word. We don’t talk about faux-Beefeaters or faux-Household Cavalry or even faux-monarchs. So long as the conductor is fully in role and wearing authentic clobber, not the costume-hire stuff favoured by so many, and so long as their shoes are proper shoes from Northampton, superbly polished, and not the squashy, scuffed Timpson things so much in vogue (I saw a Black Country undertaker the other day in DMs, FFS), then, well, there is no finer sight — for them as wants it. Watchchains jingling and silly silver-topped canes, sorry, silver-topped canes, and crepe round the silk hat — done well, if people want it, let em have it, I say. Not for me, please, under any circs – I’m probably a Poppy boy. Unless, of course, you generously offer to come out of retirement just for me. It would make my day.

      Just to be really difficult, I don’t know that creativity is going to be more than a headache for a lot of people. For them as wants it, great, and any encouragement they get will license them to make a wonderful, bespoke funeral. But quite a lot of folk just want to pick up the script entitled This Is What We Do When Someone Dies. It’s not a good script, the tried-and-trusted 20 bleak and meaningless mins at t’crem, but I suspect it can be improved and made into a liturgy for today – for them as wants tried-and-trusted.

      Having said which, there’s an awful lot of negativity and acquiescence in funeral planning, not surprising given the disempowered condition of a lot of bereaved people. Positive things will only happen in a context of cultural change, and that change will not come about until people start getting real about death and talking about it.

      I am actually in broad agreement with you. The present day version of the Victorian processional funeral is so often done so badly, and without any clear idea of why, that it would be better to do away with it except in the case of those funerals led by the very few funeral directors who have a developed and serious understanding of what they’re doing. Going through the motions is not good enough. This is not a role for the half-arsed or the narcissistic.

  6. Charles

    This is the most heartening post I’ve read in ages – not only because Poppy argues for a change in status between FDs and celebrants, though as one of the latter, naturally I think she’s absolutely right…! FDs don’t direct the funeral ceremony, at least, not in the conventional model, so the name is wildly inaccurate. Until all undertakers are sensitive and empathic enough to do our job ( a few already are, of course), and until we are all strong-minded and practical enough to do their job, we shouldn’t be dependent on them in the way we are.

    No, I think she is getting so much right in what she offers because she is looking to widen the scope of a contemporary funeral, including where it happens, what it is for, and what its effects might be. Good on her!

    Maggie – your FD “colleague” should sod off and mind his/her own business. No doubt his/her work is impeccably stuffy, nattily pompous and tidily insensitive. And he wishes to impose his view of funereal propriety upon the entire neighbourhood. In fact, “sod off” isn’t really strong enough, but this is a family show, so I’ll leave it there.

    Because of course rule no. 1 is: if the family think it was wonderful, it was wonderful. Good on yer, too!

  7. Charles

    Thank you for the lovely words people. I am so grateful for all the encouragement (and constructive criticism) this blog generates. Love all these comments and the sound of all of you. Thank you Fran for sharing your family’s story. This sounds like a funeral/celebration of life to live up to. And thank you Charles Cowling, as always, for providing a platform where we can have these chats.

  8. Charles

    One of the many things I can’t help wondering about the typical crematorium funeral is WHY family and friends rarely carry the coffin? Yep, they often wobble – but nothing means more than to carry your loved one or best mate on their final journey. I always ‘bring the men’ just in case but believe family bearing adds a special something to any funeral.

    I recently carried the coffin with the father of a very young boy. Just the two of us. It was moving and an incredibly special privilege.

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