Our role in their wishes

Fran Hall 3 Comments
Fran Hall

We noted The Sun newspaper’s report on a floral tribute this week, pointing a mild gosh-look-at-this finger at a family’s ambition to let funeral wishes be carried out – to the perfumed, petalled letter.

However, it was the throwaway inclusion of another story, further down the page, that caught our eye. Moving on past the report of a Royal Artillery sergeant’s coffin being transported on a gun carriage – de rigueur perhaps – The Sun has a picture of a JCB at the head of a funeral cortège with a coffin secured carefully in its bucket.

A little background research revealed that Tony Law had always worked with plant machinery. As a digger enthusiast, he’d not only specified the mode of transport to his own service but also had his wishes extended by the family: instead of traditional, low-key or formal dress, everyone wore hi-viz jackets to mark the occasion. ‘Tony Law’s Last Ride’, they said.

Happily, in most situations these are far from being seen as irreverent gestures. They are endearing; a little eccentric, perhaps; but intended without malice to bridge the gap between the absent character of the person who has died and people who are coming together to commemorate that person’s unique life.

Flowers, saying ‘BARSTARD’? Traditional limousines on the one hand, but a bright yellow JCB to carry your coffin? It may not be the done thing to suggest it up-front without knowing the family’s background, but if the situation is the right one then – for a good funeral – these gestures are not out of place.

However, specific wishes like these may cause significant dismay, pain even, if they are set out in a funeral plan but not shared in advance. Karen Anstee’s short film, Rachel, brought this into sharp perspective last year. Anstee’s 10-film explored the relationships between religion and family: Rachel had rejected her conservative Jewish upbringing for a more bohemian life and wanted her ceremony to reflect those life choices. Rachel’s family wanted to reclaim her body for burial in the traditional way, and the story unfolds to reflect both points of view.

In the 21st century, diverging preferences are becoming more common. Families are, sadly, more dysfunctional than they once were. Couples of all ages may come together from different cultural backgrounds and pass on new traditions or beliefs to their children. Whereas, once, intimate rites of passage served to bring families and communities together at a difficult time, today the expression of individuality has the potential to stimulate conflict.

Nowadays the expected form for a funeral may bear little or no resemblance to the unique, individual service or ceremony that’s requested either by a partner, a close family member, or – prior to their death – by the persons who have died. And as a result, funeral directors and celebrants may find themselves in a difficult situation.

Questions, then.

We hear much, still, about the importance of making a Will and ensuring it’s valid and kept up-to-date. What more could we do to reappropriate the term ‘funeral plan’, or is it too toxic to contemplate?

Would it not help us all if we could encourage the solicitors or Will-makers we know, locally, to include detailed funeral arrangements as a part of that process, and to highlight the benefit of communicating these details in advance? Or would that be too complicated in itself?

And should we consider ‘how to tell people what’s happening’ guides as an integral part of the information we all provide – or do you do this already?


  1. Fran Hall

    I work for a local hospice and last year we worked with our family support team and other departments to produce 2 booklets, one about getting your affairs in order and the other about your funeral wishes. They have both been well received and are used widely.

  2. Fran Hall

    More info, more talking, more planning the better. Last thing one needs after a death is squabbling between in-laws for example. My experience of funeral directors is that the charges are high (fortunately that was not a concern for me but of course is for many) and information is minimal. We used the closest one of course which is what most people do as there is so much to do and the directors seem to like it done face to face rather than by phone etc – very old fashioned they are – I had to be careful not to hurt their feelings they were taking so long over getting the forms done etc when I just needed to go off and get on with sorting out everything else – and then you never speak to that person again. When you phone up it’s someone in a call centre somewhere and presumably they get the body out of some great big fridge soewhere and drive it over to the local place when you say you want to take a peek. I don’t know. All very secret. I’m not into secrecy.

    but anyhow, we wanted a church service and a cremation after that – but didn’t want to go to the crematorium. Just wanted a particular day for the church service, no other stipulations. Well, that was difficult. It meant thhe funerall director ahd to contact two crematoria, which was cleary highly unusual, and also it meant fitting in with the avaiable service times at the crematorium even though we didn’t want a aservice at the crematorium. It was all very odd I have to say.

    All very nicely done in hush hush tones but very poor instructions about what we were allowed to dress our mother in. We got there in the end. But surely you’ve done this thousands of times. And why wasn’t there some kind of explanation about embalming / not embalming and explaining what it is? I presume she was embalmed but i don’t really know. She looked good, but very dead. That’s always the shock. Much deader than when you see them when they’ve just died. I alwasy ask, how do they look, ,because I don’t want a shockk and I am worried there might be some mess from a post-mortem. Dead, just very dead, should be the answer.

    I suppose I like informaiton and some people don’t. Things have improved because you can look stuff up on the internet. But because this is such a taboo subject and most undertakers, in my experience but I haven’t been bereaved that many times yet, don’t seem to like to give you much in the way of inforatmion – they can just about manage to describe the coffins which are stuck on the wall in their shop but that’s about it – there’s not much on the web either.

    But no information is better than misinformation. Here’s a gem someone passed on to me recently on a website called “Orbitas – a company owned by Cheshire East Council”. In the Bereavement Services Section we find this in the “information” section:

    Promession – The Process

    The process involves freeze-drying the remains, which are then reduced to a white powder. The remains are then placed in a biodegradeable casket, which is then interred in a shallow grave. A memorial tree or bush can be placed above the interment site. Within a year, the contents have decomposed and have been converted to loam, nourishing the newly planted memorial. The company, Promessa, claims that this is ecologically friendly.

    The funeral director will ask the person making the arrangements for the disposal of the deceased what type of coffin they would want. The process can accommodate the same kind of coffin as that used for cremation. It is hoped however that people will choose an environmentally friendly coffin eg constructed of either cardboard, leaf tree as birch or willow, or maybe bamboo. If the family wish for a more ornate/traditional coffin then it is suggested that a reusable coffin of this design be used as an outer shell in which the environmental coffin can be placed.

    There will not necessarily be a difference in the format used for cremation in the funeral service. The coffin will be placed on a catafalque at the “Promatorium” and remain there until the committal has been said and the bereaved have left the building. The coffin will then be removed into a chamber where the body will be frozen to –18 degrees Celsius, in an ordinary mechanical freezer. This will take between 24 and 48 hours.

    Once the body has cooled to –18 degrees Celsius, it is ready to be placed on to a moving platform that will transport the coffin through the different stages of the process, this part of the process takes place within a sealed unit, the Promator.
    Stage 1

    The coffin is first weighed, to determine how much liquid nitrogen will be required to freeze the body to –196 degrees Celsius, the calculation will be carried out automatically by specially designed weighing machines, and based on 1kg liquid nitrogen per 1kg of body weight. This cooling process will take 2 hours, and the liquid nitrogen will meanwhile evaporate into the atmosphere (where it originally came from), in its natural gas form of nitrogen.
    Stage 2

    Once the body has reached –196 it will be mechanically transported onto a belt which will give off small, 5 millimetres, vibrations. This part of the process takes approximately 60 seconds.
    Stage 3

    The powder will then move into a vacuum chamber where clean water will evaporate and be dispersed into the atmosphere as natural steam.
    Stage 4

    The dry powder passes through electrical currents, which will extract any metals that exist. The metals will be placed in a container ready to be recycled.
    Stage 5

    The dry powder residue, which will weigh approximately one third of the original body weight, will within the sealed unit be placed into a bio-degradable coffin (1 metre square by area and 2 metres high).

    Incorporated into the coffin will be an iron-net that will rust away, which is a natural mineral found in soil and is not harmful to the environment. This will protect the remains from disturbance by animals etc.
    Stage 6

    The coffin will be buried to a depth of approximately half a metre. In approximately 6 to 12 months the remains and the coffin will have become part of the life giving nutrients of the soil. It is suggested that a plant or trees be placed on the grave to feed on the nutrients and become a symbol of the person or just a possibility for new life.

    Alternatively it will be possible for the promains (the organic metal free dry powder) to be cremated in a smaller incinerator/furnace, if the ashes are scattered or buried in a biodegradable urn.


  3. Fran Hall

    As a funeral Videographer I film over 40 funerals a year. Some are very straight forward with the wishes of the deceased clearly being carried out. Whilst on the odd occasion, others are filled with bickering, politics and a real tug of war between different family members. Having a clear understanding of how the deceased envisaged their funeral would probably go a long way to helping avoid these situations.

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