Prepare like a prince

Although Prince Philip enjoyed a life of privilege beyond what most of us could ever imagine, there’s one thing that we all share with him – the opportunity to prepare our own funeral.

The media’s made a lot of the fact that the Duke of Edinburgh helped design his own hearse and planned many aspects of the ceremony.

But the option isn’t confined to the rich and famous.

Making plans for your funeral is open to everyone and it brings a surprising number of benefits.

It certainly makes things easier for the family you leave behind. You may not realise it now but, when the time comes, they’ll find it incredibly comforting to know that they are following your wishes. Even more than comforting, they’ll have fewer decisions to make at a time when, to be honest, the last thing they want to do is look at different coffins and decide which one to put you in.

Bereavement makes it really difficult to make choices so why make them do it?

And, strange as it sounds, it can be remarkably comforting and life-affirming to know that you’ve left your individual stamp on your last life event. Would your family really choose the pink sparkly coffin you’ve set your heart on if you haven’t already made it clear that’s what you want? Have they ever understood your secret hankering to be driven in a horse and carriage? Do they know what you sing along to when you’re on your own?

Perhaps, more importantly, preparation means your life story can be told on your own terms. Working with a celebrant in advance means you get to tell your story, your way, whether it’s a warts and all account or a glossy picture of the way you’d like your life to be remembered.

Some people in the sector are saying that Prince Philip’s self-planned funeral could be as big a turning point as David Bowie’s decision to have a private cremation. Bowie’s choice was followed by an upsurge in direct cremations and they’ve increased still further during the pandemic.

Hopefully, the coverage of Prince Philip’s self-planned funeral will show that you don’t need to be married to the Queen to arrange your own right royal send-off.

Rosemary for remembrance

Does the smell of rosemary evoke the same memories for you as it does for me?

Family roast dinners, a butterflied leg of lamb thrown onto a summer barbecue, languid holidays around the Mediterranean?

Evidence is growing that smells can be remarkable triggers of memory, much stronger than sight or sound, and the strong and distinctive scent of rosemary is particularly powerful.

Folk medicine also associates rosemary with having a good memory. If you know your Shakespeare, Hamlet in particular, you’ll remember that Ophelia tells us ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance’. We also know that ancient Greek scholars wore garlands of rosemary during academic exams, hoping perhaps that a quick turn around the herb garden would serve instead of hours studying.

I bring a box of rosemary to most of the funeral ceremonies I lead and invite everyone to take a sprig as they leave (not where a family prefers alternatives). There’s strong symbolism – carrying rosemary, the herb of remembrance, out of the chapel is a visual reminder that they carry with them memories of the person who has died. And people instinctively create an olfactory memory as well – they almost always smell the rosemary as they take it.

But there’s even more going on, particularly if you’re interested in ancient traditions surrounding death and funerals.

Rosemary has a deep-seated connection with the passing of loved ones that goes back millennia. Since pre-historic times, our ancestors have used rosemary in burial rites. We know that, as far back as 1000BC, the ancient Egyptians were using rosemary, along with other essential oils, to embalm the bodies of their dead.  

There’s evidence that Romans carried rosemary with them during funeral processions and then left the sprigs with the body. In the early sixteenth century, English statesman and politician, Sir Thomas More, wrote of rosemary: “Whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem of our funeral wakes and in our burial grounds.” Partly, we think, it’s because, as an evergreen plant, rosemary is associated with eternal life.

And that brings us to another reason rosemary is so suitable for funerals – the idea that rosemary represents eternal love as well as eternal life. Again from the sixteenth century, the celebrated Doctor of Divinity, Roger Hacket, said in his ‘fruitful sermon on marriage’: “Speaking of the powers of rosemary, it overtoppeth all the flowers in the garden, boasting man’s rule. It helpeth the brain, strengtheneth the memorie, and is very medicinable for the head. Another property of the rosemary is, it affects the heart.”

Whether because of its evocative smell, the old wives’ tales of medicinal properties or the symbolism of eternal life and love, rosemary has played a long and honourable part in our commemoration of people who’ve died.

Next time you attend a funeral, you might consider donating the money you would have spent on flowers to a favourite charity and taking instead a prettily bound bouquet of rosemary.

You’ll be following the customs of our ancestors stretching back thousands of years.

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.

What’s in a name?

This is a version of an article I co-wrote for the online magazine, Farewells (Farewells.co.uk). It explains why I’m so proud to be part of the professional organisation that is setting the national standards for funeral celebrants.

At the beginning of a new year, it can be tempting to think about a bit of a re-brand. If ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, what about a name change just to shake things up?

It can work. Perhaps you’ve never heard of Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web. But I bet you’ve heard of Yahoo, which is what it changed its name to in 1995.

On the other hand, look at the big brands that took a tumble when they tried a name change. The Royal Mail famously became Consignia in 2001 – and just as famously quietly went back to the old name just 12 months later.

For businesses in the funeral sector, their name is their reputation. Many funeral directors have a lineage stretching back several generations and it’s why, even though hundreds of them are now (often quite surreptitiously) in the hands of national chains, they’ve kept the name that local people know and respect.

It’s also why the organisation of which I’m a member – the oldest celebrant organisation in the UK and the only one dedicated to funerals – is proudly staying with the name The Institute of Civil Funerals (IoCF), despite briefly considering a change in 2020.

It is a name that says everything about its reputation.

The Institute of Civil Funerals is unique because only one organisation in any industry can have the right to be an Institute and the name comes with the responsibility of being a ‘professional body of the highest standing’. It is a protected term at Companies House and any other celebrant organisation using the term does so illegitimately.

An Institute also has to demonstrate that its activities are regulated and that it is committed to supporting training.

It means every IoCF member, like me, has already achieved the highest celebrancy qualification and is committed to helping families create the best possible funeral ceremonies for their loved ones – or even for themselves.

What would a ‘good’ celebrant mean for you?

A survey was published in September 2019 called ‘Funeral Experts by experience: what matters to them’ by Dr Julie Rugg, from the University of York and Dr Sarah Jones, from Full Circle Funerals. They interviewed people who had arranged a funeral to find out their experiences – including the use of a celebrant.

Some respondents spoke positively about celebrants who created a truly personal service, who worked closely with all family members and made suggestions that were appropriate for the deceased and the family. Unfortunately, there were others who remembered that the celebrant had got names and even genders wrong, who failed to consult or guide the family and who left them feeling as though they were on a conveyor belt.

Shocking, isn’t it?

IoCF is keen to set the bar high for its members because we believe that no family should have a poor experience arranging a funeral. That’s really kicking someone when they’re down.

‘The ‘Funeral Experts by experience’ survey shows what people want from a celebrant; sadly it also confirms that some celebrants just don’t meet the mark.

Until the time that funeral celebrants are regulated – and sadly, I think we’re a long way off that – families need an organisation like the IoCF.

They can be confident that every member on the IoCF website has already proved themselves as a fully qualified and professional celebrant and is regularly peer reviewed to ensure they stay that way.

They can be confident telling their funeral director that only an IoCF celebrant will do to help them with the overwhelmingly important task of arranging the final event in the life of their loved one.

For IoCF, it’s important to have not just a recognisable ‘brand’ but also to have integrity with the business name.

Change doesn’t always smell sweeter.