You only get one chance to get it wrong

Charles 12 Comments



A few years ago I worked with a very nice woman on her second husband’s funeral. Naturally, we talked about all sorts of things. She recalled the day of her first husband’s funeral. The hearse was due to go direct to the crematorium and she left home in good time so as to be sure of meeting it there. She set great store by punctuality. 

On the way she noticed, ahead of her, what looked very like a broken-down hearse on the side of the road. It was indeed a broken down hearse on the side of the road and in it were the mortal remains of her husband. She stopped and endured a vast outpouring of apology from the red-faced funeral director. How was she to know that this was one of the worst possible things that can happen to a funeral director, the stuff of nightmares, of crazed, gibbering terror at the darkest, loneliest hour of the night? 

In any case, she saw it differently. She thought it terrifically funny. All through their marriage one of her stock retorts to him had been “You’ll be late for your own blinking funeral!” And here he was, late for his own blinking funeral. Perfect. 

You only get one chance to get it right, they say. But here was a disaster which made the day. 

I have witnessed a few disasters at funerals and I can’t think of many that didn’t make the day. Bereaved people have a happy way of recasting a disaster as the hilarious intervention of the the person who’s died – a posthumous last raspberry. 

A faultless funeral must always be the beau ideal of a funeral director. But faultlessness at all costs can turn a funeral into a parade ground. And seamless can easily = soulless. There must always be room for whoopsiness. 

What’s your funeral whoopsie story? 


  1. Charles

    Similar story – a West London funeral director. His principal hearse driver kept on telling him the oil pressure on their ageing Daimler was weak – the thing was using oil too – running hot – past its sell-by-date. Our successful FD paid no heed. The hearse looked great and kept going – why worry about buying a new one?

    Until, one day – it started overheating on the way to the crem – (Breakspeare I believe) The limousine was following – on board – the widow of the deceased and close family.

    The hearse driver nursed the old DS 420 the best he could – almost to the crem gates – but alas, it expired in a cloud of steam and oil within sight of those gates. As you say – every FD’s nightmare. What to do?

    Our man conducting got out and nervously approached the limousine – he would have to break the news of his abject failure to the widow. A disaster! They would go no further.

    Her response? Laughter. ‘Mr ****’ she replied – ‘my husband always had rotten cars – broke down in every one – I’m afraid it’s he who has knackered your lovely hearse!’

    Apparently the bearers carried the coffin up the crematorium drive – Mr X quickly replaced his hearse with a brand new one.

  2. Charles

    (I may have posted this one before somewhere.)

    I was told, reliably I think, of the sort of music horror story all we celebrants dread.

    The family brought in the CD, soundtrack from The Wizard of Oz. The daughter of the woman who had died wanted “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” track 14 for her mum.

    Unfortunately, the chapel attendant chose the wrong track. What rang out during the committal was track 7, The Munchkins singing (you know what’s coming, don ‘t you?) “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.”

    Celebrant grovelled, apologised, wanted to die. Daughter just said “Oh, don’t worry, Mum would have just loved that, she’s probably still laughing about it.”

    (L Cohen: “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”)

    1. Charles

      I was told this story too. However in my version it should have been Somewhere over the Rainbow. The person who claimed to have been there when it happened (in the days of cassette tapes) was a funeral director and is now a celebrant . If you’re reading this, let us know – did it really happen?

  3. Charles

    After my sister died in Florida, we planned to bury her ashes with her late husband’s at a military cemetery in Vermont. My niece packaged up the container and sent it via UPS. Another sister, who lives in Vermont, received a package from UPS the day before the ceremony. She opened it and found, not a container of ashes, but a bottle of bath salts! A few phone calls later, she determined that the ashes had been delivered to an unknown person in Troy, NY! Imagine *her* surprise! The recipient had immediately called UPS and the package was already on its way back to Florida before we even found out where it was. For various reasons, it became impossible to get it back to Vermont in time for the ceremony, so we canceled it and just had a nice family party. We decided that my late sister simply wasn’t ready to leave Florida and settle down! We rescheduled for the following year, and this time, with multiple double checks, the ashes did arrive and the ceremony went off without further incident. Oh and the lady in Troy did eventually get her bath salts, although I don’t know if she could erase the association with ashes and actually use them!

  4. Charles

    Legend has it that in one crematorium I use – pre Wesley system, several CD or tape errors were made. My favourite being ‘Smoke gets in your eyes’ accidentally played at committal.

    Music still makes most sensitive funeral directors blood run cold on occasion. Did they deliver the CD to us, did we deliver it to the crem, was it tested, has it now been mis-placed? Will the darn thing actually play when required! The old tapes always made me stress, just waiting for your big moment pressing the play button was enough to make the hair grey. Despite asking families to record only the chosen song on one side of a BLANK tape – they frequently used a previously recorded tape. If you popped the tape in and pressed play – anything was possible! ‘MY WAY’ boomed out at me on one memorable occasion – totally unwanted of course. ‘Bat out of hell’ was another claimed mistake. The same person (crematorium attendant) who told me that story – swore that he had heard Arthur Brown’s FIRE played accidentally as the curtains closed.. Music at funerals – always an elephant trap for the unwary. Some people choose the most extraordinary ‘music’ as their final piece. I have had TV quiz show them tunes – but sometimes you don’t know the story behind the choice. My own exit will feature the Coronation Street theme tune. This is because I was born alone at home. My mother did the best she could – and later roughly timed my arrival (in 1961) because she heard the Corrie theme music playing in the background in our neighbours flat. The show was new then – everyone watched. How appropriate that I came and went to that?

  5. Charles

    I’ve had several grinning FDs relate to me a recent local incident. The (true) story goes something like this……

    Hearse and two limousines enter the drive up to a crematorium.
    The cortege halts to allow FD to exit the hearse in order to page the cortege
    towards the crem.
    Rumour suggests that at this point, the driver of the 2nd limo has perhaps
    Second limo rear-ends limo number one, which then rear-ends the hearse.
    Driver of limo number 1 then panics, and slams gears into reverse and
    front-ends limo number 2.
    (I never knew that Mercedes bumpers fell off so easily!)

    Almost straight out of the film “That’s your Funeral”.

    I can very nearly hear the strains of a panic-stricken FD shrieking the
    magic lines ” you’re playing concertina with my bereaved – you’ve
    desecrated my cortege “.

  6. Charles

    Another believable tale – This very week, I saw a Dignity Mercedes hearse being pushed along the road by several men in overalls. Mechanics I assume? I even took a quick photo to prove it.

    It wasn’t loaded.

  7. Charles

    My mother’s funeral should have been a carbon copy of my father’s. We therefore dispensed with the services of a Funeral Director, having effectively already had the Dress Rehearsal, and knowing exactly what was needed.

    Seven years previously I had shown up, at the same churchyard, with £150 in cash for the grave digger. This time I had £200 on me, to allow for inflation. When I had asked my siblings about mother’s grave being dug, I was told, my younger brother had ‘spoken to Minstead’.

    I was on costumes and props this time. Oh, and I was paying for it. Having cared for our Mother at home, for the last eight years, the logistics were handed over to three brothers.

    I awoke on the day of my mother’s burial, for some reason announcing firmly that we needed at least three spades.! I determined to go next door and borrow a few spades from our neighbours, so that we could fill in the grave Jamaican style. I felt that grief and shock were having their effect on my brothers and they needed to be more engaged in the whole process. I was assured that the grave-diggers would have good spades, and we would surely be able to use them, and I was being a control freak.

    Self-willed as always, I insisted on taking my own spade with me in the car boot. Decided to get to Minstead early, in case there were lots of people having lunch at the Trusty Servant. Parked at lych gate, and popped in to have a look at my father’s grave, where Mother’s bones were due to cuddle up with his. Yes, there it was. There was the rose I had planted, yes, there was the rosemary. There was his grave. …..Yes, there was the grave…..WHERE was the ***** HOLE?! Surely the grave diggers were cutting it a bit fine?

    We repaired to the Trusty Servant pub, to await more family who were due at 1pm for a burial at 2pm. Eventually went back up to Church, to find my middle brother, wearing his Afghan hat and a foxy smile, deep in conversation with the charming, and very anxious Churchwardens. They could not have been more apologetic, and had contacted the Funeral Director who couldn’t understand how it had happened, but had now appeared and were anxious to make amends. (Er, they hadn’t been engaged in the first place.. eek…)

    I produced my spade with a flourish, which at least got a laugh. Then I found myself consoling the Churchwarden, whom I now knew as Diana, thinking, ‘This is odd, here I am, trying to bury my mother, and yet here I am, comforting and reassuring this nice lady in a fur coat!’. ‘I am So-o-o sorry!’ says Diana. ‘No, no, dinna fret yerself, everything is perfect, and clearly as it is meant to be’. I couldn’t understand why SHE was so upset. Then I got it, and said ‘Ah, if we were a different sort of family, this really would be a nightmare for you, wouldn’t it?’ On reflection though, had we been a different sort of a family, it wouldn’t have happened. I shared this thought with her too, and we both grinned ruefully.

    A rather puzzled American friend, and younger brother (in full Afghan bandit rig) guarded Mother and her coffin, while surreal negotiations took place. (It did give everyone a lot of time to admire the coffin, which, though I says it as shouldn’t, was exquisite as a Fabergé egg).

    I put my spade to good use and dug up the rose and rosemary carefully. The grave digger came with his little JCB, and the troupe repaired once more to the pub, while he did his digging. Calling out a grave digger at short notice on a Saturday can cost upwards of £500. You have been warned!. If you have a Saturday afternoon burial in Winter, get the grave dug on the Friday!

    Suitably ‘refreshed’, the troupe gathered once again. This time with a lovely confident FD, resplendent in top hat and tails, directing operations, whom we had neither really wanted, and didn’t really need any more now that the grave digger had been alerted. He was doing his best to be useful and to put things right in case they had been engaged and somehow he hadn’t understood. (He hadn’t, of course, it was just that the necessary follow through hadn’t happened). Anyway I liked him, and the whole thing was so marvellous it was now worth paying for, if only for the visuals when I came to write an insanely funny, one hour TV screen play based on the occasion.

    The FD, who was remarkably composed, had indeed organised the grave digger, and after giving careful instuctions to the bearers, led the way, that we all knew, to the grave – Aha! There was the hole we needed. (But, WHO forgets to have the hole dug?!) Should I warn him that Mother had promised to haunt anyone who wore black?

    Mother was finally laid to rest, as the sun cast eerily beautiful shadows on the end of an extraordinary day. I had brought tulips with me, for her, as a welcome from her husband, and to commemorate sixty years of a passionate love affair which had started in Amsterdam. . She was clearly determined to be the centre of attention, and to milk every last ounce of drama out of her departure. If the only way of getting another four hours of being a Prima Donna was to orchestrate leaving the grave digging till the Last Possible Moment, then so be it!

    The moral of the story is, even if you think you have experience of funerals, event planning, stage management etc, in fact, you cannot tell what effect grief and shock and various levels of family dysfunction may have on you, – and having a decent FD may well be A Very Good Idea! When I settled their invoice, I asked if it had ever happened before. Apparently it had, twice, in the whole history of that particular firm. A dubious distinction.

    It took one brother several months to confess that he had had the blue form which the FD needed, in his pocket, all along.

    NB Glad to note that Arthur Conan Doyles pipe, which was missing that day, has since been replaced!

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