Thoughts of a funeral-goer

Charles 15 Comments

By Lyra Mollington

On Sunday I woke up feeling out of sorts and very parched.  With this humid and unsettled weather, viruses will be having a field day.  In these situations, I find the best course of action is complete rest and lots of green tea (Yutaka Midori – ordered online from Japan).  I stayed in bed until the evening but finally the stress of not knowing what Mr M was getting up to in the kitchen took its toll and I moved downstairs. 

First thing on Monday, Daisy came round to see how I was doing.  You may remember that she’s the friend with an alarming number of urns adorning her mantelpiece.  They all contain ashes, although not necessarily of human origin.  Like me, Daisy has a passion for dogs – particularly pugs.  After Smithers died, she swore never to get another one and, so far, she has been true to her word.  Probably because there is a new man in her life – Barry.  He’s lovely and looks like an older version of Dara O’Briain.

You may also recall that she has been my partner-in-crime on a couple of occasions.   And by ‘crime’ I am referring to my hobby of attending funerals as a mystery mourner.  She came in useful as a look-out when I photographed Pat’s cosy woollen coffin with balls of wool and knitting needles woven into the flowers.

Daisy was a reluctant assistant on that occasion, but now she was eager to help out by taking Mr Chunky for a walk.  Sadly Mr M is neither use nor ornament when it comes to dog-walking.  He has a chronic sports injury.  Or arthritis as our GP calls it.

Daisy had arrived bearing a gift which she insisted I open straight away because, ‘It will cheer you up!’ She could barely contain her excitement as I began tearing off the striking Loїs Mailou Jones wrapping paper. 

It was a boxed set of three paperbacks. 

No, not the Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy… 

The Natural Death Handbook – in shades of grey, teal and cerulean.  Daisy’s excitement had reached fever pitch and her words tumbled out, ‘Barry helped me to order it – we had to visit a website!  It was meant to be for your birthday but, as soon as I found out you were poorly, I thought you’d need a boost because you won’t be well enough to go to any funerals this week.’  I smiled and told her that she was the most thoughtful and kind-hearted person I knew. 

As I later reflected, only Daisy would have the aplomb to buy me the Natural Death Handbook for my 75th birthday – and then decide it would be the perfect get-well-soon present. 

Daisy left to walk the dog, having made me promise that I wouldn’t overdo it by reading too much.   Luckily, this is a trilogy to dip into, not to slavishly read from beginning to end. 

I began by reading the opening section of Chapter 7 of the Handbook: ‘Common misapprehensions and urban myths’.  I felt rather smug that I knew them all.  A gravely misinformed member of the public is quoted as saying, ‘We presumed that you had to have a hearse to move the body.’  I began to imagine trying to manoeuvre Mr M’s body into the back of my Ford Fiesta.  Yes, I would calmly explain to onlookers – it’s all perfectly legal.

I then read some of Chapter 8: ‘Family-organised and inexpensive funerals’.  I already knew that there’s no law that says you must use a funeral director.  However, like most people, I had never considered a DIY funeral for me or my family.  But the savings really are considerable.  I studied the section on ‘leakage’ with a mixture of horror and fascination.  Apparently, ‘This is something that most professionals are extremely worried about, so much so that they line nearly all coffins with plastic, which for the most part is not degradable; it is called cremfilm.’ I was strangely reassured to discover that, ‘Usually the elderly and those who have suffered long drawn-out illness will be dehydrated and leakage will not be an issue.’ Nature’s way of telling us we’re ready?

The next paragraph, ‘A suitable vehicle’ had me chuckling.   ‘This author has witnessed one family arriving at the burial ground with their mother, admittedly a short lady, in a Renault Clio.’ Mr M is quite tall but I began to reconsider my earlier misgivings.  Perhaps with the back seats down, the boot open, some sturdy twine and a following wind…

I then dipped into the volume ‘Writing on Death’ which includes an essay written by our very own Charles Cowling.  I chose to read Carla Zilbersmith first – her poignant and moving ‘Leave them laughing’.

By the time Daisy returned, I was feeling inspired.  And thirsty.  I was ready for another cup of tea.  Good old Yorkshire tea.  This elderly woman wasn’t going to be getting dehydrated any time soon.

As Carla said, ‘I’m madly in love with living.’ 

ED’S NOTE: Carla Zilbersmith, to whose essay in the Natural Death Handbook, 5th edition, Mrs Mollington alludes, died in 2010 0f ALS, which in Britain we call MND (motor neurone disease). Carla wrote a blog recording the progress of her illness. It’s one of the most extraordinarily brave, funny and life-affirming things you’ll ever read, and you can find it here. She made the video above to be played at her memorial. 

The just-out fifth edition of the Natural Death Handbook is available only from the NDC. They are cutting out distributors (people like Amazon) because they know too well that people who write books are right at the end of the food chain where earnings are concerned. They want as much money as possible to come to the charity. Good for them, we say. 

The Natural Death Handbook comes in three volumes contained in a slipcase. Production values are high: it’s a beautiful artefact in its own right. Better still, it’s the direct descendant of (not in any way a departure from) all the other editions of the Handbook, which have been so inspiring to so many. Buy a copy, love it and support the best cause in Funeralworld. Click this link and you’re halfway there – click!


  1. Charles

    Dear Lyra, so many good things here, thank you. I agree with you entirely about the wonderful and wonderfully-presented Handbook, and about Carla Z, also wonderful beyond measure.

    But I have to ask you, if you don’t mind – have you mentioned your ruminations about funeral transport to Mr M? These things can build up in the mind, you know, and if he catches you too frequently moving your speculative gaze from him to the boot of your car, he might get nervous. He might also have a view about the sort of motor he is willing to be stuffed into the back of, when the time comes – unless he is not at all a car snob (as so many chaps are, I find.)

    I’m sure you’ll soon send the virus packing and be off tracking down funeral practice of all sorts ere long.

  2. Charles

    This cheered me right up. You have a wonderful way with words Lyra. And good for Daisy – the handbook makes the most excellent present all round.

  3. Charles

    Lyra – I hope make a speedy recovery! thank you for witing to us even though you were under the weather. What a treat to have the time to dip into your present. I love Daisy – I’m wondering if my friend would like a copy of NDC trilogy….

  4. Charles

    Evelyn – it’s a tricky one because some people might take offence. However, a true friend would know that your heart is in the right place. Perhaps you could prepare him or her with a few words of caution before they rip off the paper…

  5. Charles

    Eyebrows were raised at work a few years ago, Lyra, when I went out one lunchtime to buy my wife’s birthday presents. I came back with a previous edition of the Handbook and a very neat garden fork. Its all too easy to jump to conclusions isn’t it?

  6. Charles

    ps I’m thinking of buying a longer car now, – I think I said before that my son informs me that a mercedes estate would be long enough for a standard coffin without moving the front passenger seat. And it has flat bed entry too apparently.

  7. Charles

    Carla’s video alone was worth a year’s subscription to this blog.

    Oh, we don’t pay a subscription.

    Carla’s video alone would be worth a year’s subscription to this blog if we had to pay one.

    I don’t think I’ve laughed and cried in such close promixity.

  8. Charles

    Amazing, isn’t it, Sweetpea? Do read the blog. We all got very involved with Carla; hers was one of those I-remember-where-I-was-and-what-I-was-doing deaths. At the end she simply stopped eating so she could go. She was unbelievably brave. Somewhere in her blog you’ll find her calendar of ALS/MND pinups – and all manner of very poignant merriment. She also recorded an album which had some very good songs on it.

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