When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Resist the temptation

A programme on BBC4 last night called ‘The British Way of Death’ included part of an interview with Agony Aunt Virginia Ironside, who made it clear that she thinks it’s a bad idea to plan your own funeral. I agree. Apart from paying in advance through a ‘funeral plan’ (though it probably makes more sense to save in some other way), and maybe suggesting some music and a reading or two, planning your own funeral can cause huge problems.

I’ve written elsewhere about the funeral of a close relative last year, and about Claire Rayner's funeral plans. Forgive the repetition, but (as you may have noticed) I feel strongly about this. If you're tempted to make a wish list for you own funeral, DON'T DO IT!

My relative and a friend spent an afternoon drinking wine and planning her funeral – she had terminal cancer – and the result was a shopping list of expensive and problematical wishes and instructions about the form her funeral should take. It was one of the least satisfactory funerals I’ve ever attended, with stressed relatives endeavouring to tick everything off her list, no matter how unnecessary or complicated. For example, she wanted karaoke, a barbecue and fireworks at a party afterwards. Why? Because it’s what she’d have liked if she’d still been here? Some people joined in the karaoke, while the more sober looked on uncomfortably. Weeks afterwards, people told me they thought it was a very strange occasion. The barbecue had to be done on a cold and windy patio, definitely not like a spontaneous summer party. As for the fireworks; it was not permitted to use them at the community centre where we held the party, because the insurance premiums would have been far higher than any rockets, so they had a few sparklers instead (there was a fireworks party, a couple of months later, but I didn’t go). The friend who'd help to make the plans that drunken afternoon seemed to think she ought to have been put in charge of the party, and got maudlin drunk while the family did their best to ignore her.

The ceremony itself was strange. X said she didn’t want anyone talking about her. Instead, a clergyman said a few words and someone read a poem. Otherwise, it was all music, a sort of desert island disks, one after another. It was all show and no substance.

A couple of years ago, I did a funeral that included a tribute the deceased had written herself, in the third person. Her family seemed to regard her efforts with amusement. They were going to remember her as someone who didn't trust anyone else to do the job properly. The tribute was a brief chronological account of her life, but gave little away about how she felt about any of the people who'd shared it with her.

I’ve heard of serious family disagreements over funerals like this, with people getting very het up over what they can or can’t do, and all because the dear departed hadn’t understood what a funeral is for. It’s not an opportunity to try to influence other people’s reactions to your death from beyond the grave (or crematorium furnace, as the case may be). It’s not for you to tell other people how to remember you. It’s something you have no control over – let those who survive you do it their way. Hopefully, it will be relevant. They won’t, for example, give you a religious funeral if you were a committed atheist, unless it’s to spite you for being a pain in the arse. If you have any consideration for the living, you won’t expect them to jump through hoops to satisfy your expectations – why should you care? You’ll be dead, for goodness’ sake! That’s partly the problem though, isn’t it? People who make elaborate plans for their own funeral find it very hard to imagine not being here any more. Well, the thing is, when you’re dead that’s it. You don’t get to attend your own funeral, except in posthumous form. You won’t hear the tributes from inside your coffin. Believe me – you won’t. Just as well really, if you're the controlling sort. You might be tempted to hammer on the lid from the inside, screaming 'No! Not like that!'

A funeral might celebrate your life, if you're lucky, or it might not. Some people just want to get it over with. As for what they'll do there: some may weep and wail (though the noisiest may be weeping crocodile tears) while others remain calm and dignified. It’s not up to you what they do. Only the vain and the controlling would want to encourage any particular response. If you imagine that you’re making it ‘easier’ for your family to plan things, think again. It could have the opposite effect from the one you're aiming for anyway. People might remember your self-indulgently weird funeral, and wonder if they had you all wrong and you weren't a nice sensible person after all.

A few years ago, a funeral celebrant I know spoke of helping several people plan their own funerals. I advised her not to, but she went ahead anyway. Later, I heard that one family had told her thank you, but they were going to do the funeral their way and wouldn’t need any of the stuff she’d prepared. I resisted the temptation to say ‘I told you so’.