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Organising a funeral

Some people like to plan their own funeral. Others don’t want to think about it and leave the organisation to family once they’ve gone. Either way, it’s surprising how much there is to think about.

By Kathy Lawrence

The number of decisions you need to take while organising a funeral can be quite daunting. Here’s some advanced warning of the choices you’re likely to have to make.

My dad was 94 when he died. A very good age and he had made his peace with the idea a long time before.  So we knew that the day would come eventually, but we weren’t really prepared to address the number of decisions we had to make when we visited the undertakers.

Choosing the funeral director

We chose our funeral director because I liked the idea of an independent company that was in the town where my parents had lived for 50 years. That’s not to say that independence or locality makes them the best, but you have to start somewhere. Like many others, I felt that ringing around for quotes was not quite the thing. If we hadn’t had an opinion, I’ve no doubt the care home would have been able to offer some ideas.

In our role as executors and offspring, my brother and I went along to an hour-long meeting with the funeral directors. We had no idea what to expect, and were rather taken aback by the list of decisions we had to make. Probably we could have deferred some for a day or so, but it seemed better to just get on with it.

So in the spirit of preparing others, here are some of the questions we were asked, and some of our answers.

What does the funeral director need to know?

  1. Burial or cremation? We were fortunate in that dad had already bought a plot and mum was already buried there. That said, the last time we visited mum’s grave dad did start wondering if he’d made the right choice. But we went with burial anyway. And as a side issue, we had to nominate an owner of the plot. I’ve taken that on, though it doesn’t seem to require any action.
  2. What sort of ceremony? Dad was born Jewish but had turned away from religion at an early age, so a church service wasn’t appropriate. We chose to use a celebrant, who could offer a service of celebration.
  3. Where to hold the ceremony? We were delighted to hear that one of the options was a graveside service. It was a bit of a gamble as the weather could have been terrible. And it hadn’t occurred to me that everyone would have to stand, which might have been hard for some of the older attendees. But actually they seemed very happy with the proceedings.
  4. Flowers? We decided on flowers from close family only and then donations to charity. The funeral directors offered organisation of flowers as part of their service.
  5. Which florist? The funeral directors offered flower organisation as part of their service, but we decided to arrange this ourselves. There was only one real choice in town, and we independently ordered our choice through their website.
  6. Which charity? We chose one that dad had been actively involved in. I don’t know if anyone actually made a donation, and we didn’t get much response from the charity concerned, but I think he would have been happy with the decision.
  7. Should be have a notice in the local paper? Many would say quite justifiably “What local paper?” but there is a very active paper where dad lived. Having a notice would enable people who knew him to get in touch, attend the funeral or make a donation. And the funeral directors offered to take this on.
  8. Which funeral casket? We leafed through the brochure, aimed with knowing which option dad had chosen for mum some years before. Caskets are massively expensive. And surprisingly, what I would have thought as a simple, cheaper and green alternative in the shape of a wicker box, was the most expensive of the lot.
  9. Should we have a viewing of the body? No, not to our taste and there were few people left living locally who might want to avail themselves of the service.
  10. What clothes to bury dad in? We could opt to supply clothes or the funeral directors would supply a simple gown. As we weren’t having a viewing (and all dad’s clothes had seen much better days) we chose the gown.
  11. Which headstone and what inscription? There’s not a lot of competition in this market, but it is a very slow process.

I was hugely fortunate in that my co-executor was happy to decide on every point as we went along. But neither of us had very strong feelings about any of the points, so agreement was easy.

Actions we needed to take ourselves

That wasn’t the end of the arrangements. Once we had a date I now had to:

  1. Contact an available celebrant and have a meeting to discuss the content of the ceremony.
  2. Decide where to provide refreshments afterwards. As we didn’t live in the area, I joined a local Facebook community group and asked for recommendations. Then it was a matter of contacting the various venues to review menus and prices.
  3. Invite people to the funeral and try to get some idea of numbers for the hotel.
  4. Choose appropriate music for the ceremony and work out how to play it by the graveside.
  5. Decide who was going to give an address and give them guidance on length (trying to keep it all fairly short as we’d all be standing up in the great outdoors in October).
  6. Organise places to stay and airport runs for those coming from overseas.
  7. Arrange transport on the day for visitors.

After the funeral we still had a few tasks:

  1. Pay the undertaker’s bill. In our case my brother put it on a credit card and then he eventually was able to reclaim the cost from the estate. The bill ran into the thousands, even though it was a pretty small funeral.
  2. Execute the will (and find a bank willing to help – not an easy task)
  3. Chase up the headstone, which took almost a year to be erected

If this all sounds very pragmatic and not very emotional, the truth is that it was. But it’s working through all the practical arrangements that can keep you going at a difficult time.

Kathy Lawrence is a freelance writer and the editor of When They Get Older.

Photo by Isabel Galvez on Unsplash

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