The sad beauty of a double funeral

Devastating as it is to lose a loved one, how much more devastating it is to lose two people within days, or even hours, of each other.

I can’t say the death of two close family members has become common during the coronavirus pandemic but it’s certainly become less uncommon, particularly for elderly couples.

The shock for those left behind is unimaginable. As are the practical and emotional difficulties as you find yourself arranging not one but two funerals in quick succession.

And so, the question arises, should you make it a double funeral?

Perhaps you’re worried that you’re somehow not ‘doing right’ by your loved ones if you don’t give them separate funerals.

Perhaps you’ve started to arrange one funeral before the second person dies and can’t face undoing the earlier arrangements.

Indeed, are people even aware that a double funeral is possible?

But there’s no doubt that a double funeral makes sense in practical terms and can even help you cope with the devastation of your double loss.

Particularly if you have a sense of an afterlife, whether traditional or more spiritual, there can be a lot of comfort gained from sending both loved ones on their final journey together. You may also find that having just one ceremony, rather than two, is a little easier emotionally.

In practical terms, a double funeral costs less than two single funerals. And, while the pandemic continues, it is safer for everyone if you only have to visit the chapel once.

Even more importantly, a double funeral can be truly beautiful as it honours and recognises the enduring love between two people in a meaningful way.  

I recently led a ceremony for an elderly couple who died within days of each other from COVID-19. It was important to the family that they celebrated what had been a long and incredibly happy marriage.

Between us, the funeral director and I arranged to set the coffins on two separate trestles, slightly angled so that the coffins were just touching. We checked with the family which sides of the bed their mum and dad usually slept on and placed their coffins on the same sides. And we asked them to choose a typical item of clothing to put onto each coffin so that everyone watching on the webcast could easily identify which was which.

The tribute was a tapestry of their stories, all the richer for weaving the two together, remembering their lives as individuals as well as their lives as a couple. Music was chosen to reflect their distinct personalities as well as their time together and poems adapted to refer to both of them.

As part of the committal, we remembered the vows they had made at their wedding, acknowledging that even death had not parted them.

Of course, family members were still full of sadness and shock. But they gained an enormous amount of comfort from the acknowledgment that their much-loved parents and grandparents were together in death as they had been in life. They were certain that neither would have wanted to live without the other.

Colleagues from my professional organisation, The Institute of Civil Funerals, suggest other ideas for a double funeral. For example, one family locked together two padlocks and sent the key and its copy with the coffins. The linked padlocks stay with the family as a visual reminder that their loved ones can never be parted. Others have used ribbon knotting and plaiting – reflections of handfasting wedding ceremonies. Or you could have different actions in the ceremony to remember each individual – laying flowers for one and lighting a candle for the other, for example.

There are other choices, such as deciding which coffin is borne into the chapel first. In the case of a married couple, you might prefer to give precedence to the wife, a final ‘Ladies first’ courtesy. For a parent and child, you might choose to pay that respect to the older of the two.

They are small touches but, when you look back on the day, you’ll realise how important it is that you were encouraged to create a double funeral as a very special and meaningful occasion.

Your funeral director, celebrant or officiant should really make these options part of the planning for any double funeral. The professionals should be led by you in the balance between your loved ones as individuals and the life they shared together, whether they are parent and child, spouses, siblings or any other combination.

If you’re in the difficult situation of considering a double funeral, speak with at least a couple of funeral directors and celebrants before you decide whose services you’re going to use. Remember that it’s often better to choose the celebrant before the funeral director to get the most options.

Look for those who show a willingness to adapt so that the double funeral becomes a unique and memorable end of life event for both of your loved ones.

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