Arranging a Funeral

Information and practical advice for arranging a funeral

After someone dies, it’s easy to let professionals take over and to be rushed into making arrangements, including the funeral. Our first piece of advice would be not to panic – unless there is a spiritual or cultural reason for a quick funeral, there’s no need to be rushed into any decisions. Slow things down and allow yourself time to take stock of what has happened and to think about how you would like things to proceed. There are a number of decisions to be made, but you may wish to take your time and consult with all of the people that you feel should be involved in decisions about caring for the person who has died and the type of funeral that you think they would have liked and which suits your way of grieving and also the budget available.

The first question you need to ask yourself is who is legally responsible for the person who has died and how you (or the person legally responsible) would like the person who has died to be cared for until their funeral. If the person died in a hospital or hospice, it is usually assumed that a funeral director will be called to take the body into their care and place it in their chapel of rest or funeral home, unless the coroner wishes to examine the body or the person died of a disease which makes the body infectious, in which case the hospital has the right to detain it on the authority of a suitably qualified clinician. If the person died at home, there may be less time pressure to decide what to do with the body, but again it is often assumed that at some point, a funeral director will be called to take away the body. Whilst most funeral directors offer bereaved families an excellent service, this is not necessary unless you wish it to happen; you do not need to engage the service of a funeral director unless you want to. You have the right to care for the body of the person who has died at home; It is entirely up to you to decide whether or not you want to appoint someone else to undertake matters on your behalf.

You will need to have sufficient emotional and physical strength to carry out all the arrangements and plenty of support from helpers, family and friends. A good piece of advice is to find someone not too affected by grief to hold your hand through what can seem like a maze of conflicting information and instructions – preferably someone who knows what they’re doing or has done it before.

In many cases planning the funeral can act as a focus for the family to help get through the first days following bereavement together. It often helps to be an active participant in organising and carrying out funeral arrangements rather than a spectator – the more that you can do yourself for the person who has died, the more you are likely to feel part of the end of their lives.

Please don’t accept ‘no’ as an immediate and final answer to any requests regarding the arrangements, as it is important that you decide and carry out what is best for you. Whether looking after the body, choosing a coffin or burial location, even simply filling in crematorium forms yourself – go on asking for what you want till someone says ‘yes’, and go with that person. Funeral professionals don’t deliberately mislead you, but most only know the express train schedule and you may prefer the scenic route.

Here are some of the things that you will need to think about:

Visiting the body of the person who has died

You may wish for friends and relatives to have the opportunity to visit the body of the person who has died to say their goodbyes. This can be done at home or at the chapel of rest or funeral home.

Holding a Vigil or a Wake

The ritual of holding a vigil for the recently departed is as ancient as mankind, but often overlooked in our daily rush to keep life ticking along as normal. A vigil normally involves sitting with the person who has died to ‘watch over’ them and could be held at your local church or place of worship or at home, for a few hours or a few days, immediately after death or just before the funeral ceremony.

A modern wake is, essentially, a celebration of the person who has died. Friends and family gather together to remember them, talk about them and tell stories, whether serious or humorous. For some people, a wake is an opportunity to counterbalance the sorrow of losing a loved one with the joy of having known them in the first place. A wake is normally held before the funeral (but is also often used in the UK as a term for the reception after the funeral) and is normally held at home or at a venue where food and drinks are available for all who attend.

Coffins and alternatives

The coffin will often set the tone of the funeral, and more recently has begun to really reflect the personality of the person who has died. There are many different types of coffins available nowadays, from traditional wood to willow, sea grass, banana leaves, cardboard, eco pods, wool coffins, soft shrouds and many individual and bespoke designs. You don’t have to buy a coffin direct from a funeral director as many suppliers will now sell direct to the public, but wherever you get your coffin from, do shop around as prices can vary from around £150 to several thousand. Also, be aware of bargain basement coffin prices, particularly from internet sellers; these may not be of the quality you wish. When purchasing the coffin, you must ensure that the crematorium or burial site will accept the coffin you choose – green burial grounds in particular are quite explicit about what they will or will not be able to bury. You can find information about coffin suppliers here.

Deciding between Burial and Cremation

If the person who has died did not leave express wishes about their funeral, choosing between burial and cremation might be the most difficult funeral decision you have to make. The choice is entirely personal, but might be influenced by family tradition, distance that people will have to travel, the dates and times available for the funeral, the availability of space in local burial grounds, cost (burial is normally more expensive than cremation), length of service time (some crematoriums only allow time for a short ceremony and you might want something longer), numbers of people likely to attend (and how to manage this) any religious beliefs that you or the person who has died might have had and whether and where you plan to hold a gathering after the funeral.

You may wish to consider a natural burial which is a cemetery managed along ecologically-sound principles to create a beautiful and nature-rich site. Usually they do not have traditional headstones, instead graves can be planted with a tree or a plaque to create a natural memorial.

The Funeral Service

Do you really have to have a funeral? Of course not – and there is a rising number of people who choose not to have any kind of public or private funeral service, including David Bowie who died in 2016 and opted for what’s generally known as ‘direct cremation’. It should be noted that while there was no funeral or formal memorial service for him, there were various memorial concerts held in tribute to his life and work.

That said, a good funeral can go a long way towards comforting bereaved family and friends and acknowledging and even celebrating the life of the person who has died. The circumstances of the death will often dictate the type and tone of the funeral, but whatever type of service is chosen, then it is well worth thinking carefully about how to personalise this to reflect individual and family wishes as well as any spiritual or religious beliefs.

If the person who has died has expressed their wishes, you may wish to keep as close to these as possible. You may however feel that the funeral is meant for the bereaved family and friends and wish to organise a service which you think will best comfort those left behind. In either case, it is wise to try to consider the wishes and feelings of as many of the individuals who are affected by the death as possible and where necessary to compromise on the arrangements for the service.

Funerals are a good opportunity to bring people together and can be daunting to try to arrange single handedly. Ask for and accept offers of help – many people would love to help, so give them permission to do so.

Flowers, Candles and Music

If flowers are important for you, try to find a florist who is sympathetic and happy to listen rather than one who just encourages you to choose flowers online or from a catalogue. It is usually sensible for you to identify and deal with your own florist rather than ordering flowers via the funeral director if you want to avoid any extra mark-up and have a say in how the flowers are presented. Some funeral directors do have good onsite florists who should be particularly experienced at producing funeral flowers.

It is easy to go vastly over budget with funeral flowers so it’s helpful to think ahead and again, shop around. Expect to pay at least £50 for even the simplest arrangement and usually at least £150 for flowers to go on top of a coffin. Arrangements which spell out a name or title are often the most expensive, starting at around £150 for the simplest ‘MUM’ design. Within your budget think about a favourite season, fond memories and places visited. The person who has died may have had favourite flowers, scent and colour preferences and you might even want to include flowers from the person’s garden.

Placing and lighting candles can help create an effective ceremony, with the lighting and extinguishing of a flame being a direct metaphor for life and death.

The choice of music for a funeral is another deeply personal issue. In most venues you will be able to choose any music you like, although some places of worship may restrict choices that they feel might be inappropriate and humanist celebrants may not allow hymns or very religious music to be played. Choose music which is significant to the life of the person who has died and that reminds friends and family of them. It might be important to bear in mind the different ages and attitudes of the people attending the funeral. Music evokes strong feelings for many people, especially during emotional times so it is important to try to be thoughtful and considerate when choosing music for the funeral and perhaps to consult with those close to the person who has died.

Taking the Coffin to the Funeral

You can use any form of transport you like to move the coffin to the funeral venue. Many people still wish to have a formal funeral procession which is normally led by the funeral director walking at the front of it, some prefer to simply travel in a limousine or funeral car behind the hearse. It might be that you want the person who has died to travel to their funeral in a VW camper van, horse drawn carriage, motorbike and sidecar or even a tractor! You can find information about specialist funeral transport here.

The Funeral Ceremony

Some people wish to create or have printed a booklet which outlines the order of service and perhaps tells the short life story of the person who has died and includes their picture or other appropriate images. The order of service needs to be agreed with the celebrant or officiant in advance so that the arrangements are understood and agreed. Some families collect donations for charity or other organisations at the funeral and a URL link or even QR code can be included in the booklet to show families where they can do this online.

The funeral ceremony might include a eulogy, which you can write yourself, or along with family and friends, or ask for the celebrant or officiant to help with this. Again, you may wish to deliver the eulogy yourself or ask another person to say it at the service. Before starting to write the eulogy, think about the whole life of the person, their history, personality, life highlights and challenges and key relationships as well as your personal memories and feelings about them. You will bring light and colour to a eulogy if you can collect different memories and stories from others who knew them well.

The Committal

The words of committal are the last goodbye to the person who has died and are usually kept reasonably brief and formal. If you are writing the ceremony you can choose your own words or a poem or short song, or if the ceremony is more religious, then normally the officiant will commend the soul of the person to God’s eternal keeping.

Lowering the Coffin for Burial

Once the coffin is lowered into the ground, people in attendance can be invited to throw a handful of earth, a flower or a keepsake or item of significance on top. If the earth is wet it might be practical to have a bucket of dry earth to hand. Sometimes, the gathering may wish to fill the grave completely or to add flowers and or petals on top of the coffin.

Scattering Ashes

The number of people collecting ashes from the crematoria has increased significantly in recent years. There are at least 200,000 private ceremonies of some sort conducted every year in the UK to dispose of these ashes. There do not appear to be any laws or regulations to stop you scattering ashes except that you should gain the permission of the owner of the land. You should not scatter them in a churchyard, from a harbour wall or pier without relevant permission but you do not need a license to scatter ashes at sea offshore.

And if the funeral didn’t go well…

Where you held a funeral for the body of the person who died and it didn’t go as well as you would have liked or if key people couldn’t attend on the day, remember that there’s always a second opportunity to get it right. Ceremonies for scattering or interring ashes, formal memorial services, celebrations of life or other rituals to remember the person who has died can all be helpful in acknowledging and celebrating their life. Some people with children like to hold a special ceremony – perhaps to say a few words about the person who has died and release a balloon to symbolise letting them go. A funeral may mark the end of a life, but it will not mark the end of your relationship with that person or your memories of them, so there can always be other opportunities made to remember and honour them.