How To Make A Funeral The Best It Can Be

How To Make A Funeral The Best It Can Be

Organising a funeral is one of the toughest things any of us are likely to do in our lifetime. From choosing between a cremation or a burial, to putting together an order of service, we spoke to funeral expert Poppy Mardall to find out how to make a funeral the best it can be – both now and in the future…

As a rule, the funeral sector is extremely traditional and corporate. There isn’t a huge amount of choice, humanity or flexibility. Prior to setting up my own business, Poppy’s Funerals, my experience in a local hospice proved there were so many care principles which could be incorporated into the funeral industry. Hospice care is very holistic, and it’s all about the patient and the family. It really underpins the approach we try to take with our own clients, now.

We live in a society that isn’t hugely comfortable with the concept of death. It means people don’t tend to think about it before it happens. Plus, there are still so many taboos – particularly with issues like suicide. When it comes to the celebrant talking about what has or hasn’t happened, remember that you get to set the boundaries. That said, talking about things honestly can be very powerful.

Mourners tend to fall into three categories. The first are those which are deeply grieving and don’t know what to do. In that situation, our role is to be as supportive and guiding as possible. The second group tend to understand what a funeral is and that they have to go through with it, but the image they have is very traditional: undertakers, everyone in black, limousines etc. It’s part of our job to help them feel more empowered to make personal choices. Then, there’s a small group of people who have a really well thought-out plan, which often means they’ve had a conversation before coming to see us.

Try to think about what the day means to you. Some people just want to get it over with because there’s an assumption everything is going to be awful, and that’s what we’re trying to challenge. Don’t force anything which doesn’t feel right, but remember now is the time to come together and feel as many emotions as possible. 

Not many people realise a funeral can be custom built. We usually start with the basics – specifically, choosing between a cremation or burial. It makes people feel better to start making practical decisions. From there, try not to be squeezed into a particular box. From our point of view, it’s crucial to establish a judgement-free zone so clients feel they can arrange something which is appropriate for them and their family. 

People often need help with caring for the body. We’re open to being as involved in the entire process as our clients wish, but most are looking for help with this part. We can always connect them with the right people when it comes to planning a bigger celebration or memorial. 

The two world wars significantly changed the way funerals work. With so many people dying, it was hard to dive deep into your own grief – your experience tended to be one of many. Fifty years ago, religious ceremonies were also far more normal. But with cremation legalised in 1901, and many more crematoriums built throughout the latter part of the last century, it’s estimated that nearly 80% of people get cremated in London these days. But even though religion has largely fallen away, when it comes to it, 20 minutes in a crematorium still doesn’t feel right – or enough – for many. It’s because religion hasn’t been adequately replaced with any other personal or meaningful ritual. 

We encourage people to consider a double booking at the crematorium. It means you won’t see families leaving before or coming in after you, and it buys you more time. There’s nothing worse than feeling rushed. We also spend a lot of time researching alternative venues – be it boat clubs, art galleries, local halls and gardens – in order to hold ceremonies that are completely unrestricted.

Some people just want to get it over with because there’s an assumption everything is going to be awful, and that’s what we’re trying to challenge.

There are families that just want the basics. In that case, it’s just about checking that’s exactly what they want. We try to have a natural, organic conversation about the deceased and what they liked and how that matches with the family’s current expectations.

There are ways to include personal touches that won’t upset other family members. We’ve had clients write letters to the deceased which can then be placed in the coffin with them, or ask if the deceased can wear certain items of clothing. We don’t want the family to have any regrets, so it’s important to remember there are ways to meet everybody’s needs.

Certain wishes and requests might sound odd, but they make sense to us. We’re often asked whether a pet’s ashes can be interred with the deceased or if people can come in and shave their father’s beards or wash their mum’s hair. We’ve even known families who wanted to take the person on one last trip down a stretch of the Thames. It’s about doing things your way one last time, and that’s perfectly okay. It’s exactly how hospices work.

Amid this global pandemic, we’re using all of our skills to treat everyone as an individual. As it stands, we’re allowed ten people at a ceremony – not including a celebrant or funeral directors. The silver lining is that we don’t have to break this to people – most are very understanding. Instead, it’s about working with them to find out what we can realistically, and safely, do. 

That said, we’re always advocating on our client’s behalf. For example, we had a funeral the other day which included just over ten people – but outside and with strict social distancing. Because the attendees were made up of two or three family households, it meant we could negotiate with the cemetery on numbers. These boundaries are shifting all the time at the moment.

The current circumstances have prompted people to embrace technology – mainly through webcasting facilities so guests can dial in. It’s possible to make a speech or participate more actively this way – which is especially relevant if you’re in a different country.

You can always plan a larger, celebratory memorial for a later day. In fact, if you tried to organise something right now, you might find many venues are struggling with flowers or other suppliers. It’s forcing people to be more creative, and bring things with them from home – paintings, letters or wild bouquets. One family even did a roll call of people who wanted to be there – it was really touching. You could even try having a little ritual at home: light a candle and acknowledge it.

Remember, if it doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to have a funeral. You can always have them cremated with a short ceremony and then a celebration afterwards. Either way, marking the occasion in some way is still an opportunity to get your brain around what’s happened – to say goodbye and for the broader community to reach out to you and your family.


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