Funerals or other meetings to commemorate a person’s life may be very sad occasions, but they often help those who are grieving. Planning can be cathartic and distracting and some said they wanted to be closely involved because it was the last thing they could do for the person who died. They give people an opportunity to express thoughts and feelings about the person who died, to pray for the person’s spirit, and to say good-bye.
Funeral ceremonies in the UK take many forms. They differ according to a preference for burial or cremation, and in line with any religious beliefs or affiliation. Some have a funeral service in a chapel, church or a secular building, followed by another ceremony at a crematorium. The ashes may be buried or scattered there, or taken elsewhere. Others go to the crematorium first and then have a service in a local church, where they bury the ashes. Some people have the entire ceremony at the crematorium. Others have the ceremony at the church, followed by a burial (see ‘Burying the body or scattering or burying the ashes’). People from different cultural backgrounds will plan different types of funeral. Minority ethnic groups have their own funeral rites, and may specify particular roles for men and women. People sometimes ‘borrow’ from other traditions or amalgamate elements from funerals they have been to before.
The people we talked to had all been bereaved by suicide and most were still feeling shocked and desolate at the time of the funeral. Some said the funeral had been awful.
Other people remembered the funeral in a much more positive light. The funeral had been sad but they saw it as a way of accepting what had happened, as a form of family and community solidarity, and a celebration of a life. Several people were amazed at by the number who came to the funeral. The show of support meant a lot to them. Sometimes members of the family or friends read personal tributes and chose significant music while others were pleased to be able to follow a traditional religious service.
Some religious practices require burial the day after the death. Among the people we talked to the funeral usually took place about two weeks after the death. Barbara (whose son was buried about 10 days after the death) felt that decisions about the funeral had been a bit rushed. Some people had to wait longer for the coroner to issue an interim death certificate. Helen found waiting seven weeks difficult, but it gave her plenty of time to plan the funeral and get it ‘exactly right’.
Dressing and preparing the body for the funeral
Many people went to see the body of their friend or relative at the funeral director’s before the funeral (see ‘Seeing the body or not being able to do so
’). Some people took great care to dress the person they loved in the clothes they thought appropriate for the funeral, and many left jewellery as a final gift.
Some people had their relative’s body returned home before the funeral so that they could say good-bye, dress the person, or add items to the coffin. Kate, for example, arranged for both her daughters to be brought home before their funerals. She put candles and flowers in the room, invited their friends, and asked a minister to say prayers.
People with certain religious beliefs prepare their relative’s body in special ways for their funeral. Paula’s husband was a Muslim so before his funeral he was washed in the ‘Islamic way’ at a mosque. Kavita’s brother was washed at home and dressed in new clothes according to Hindu tradition. A priest anointed him with oils and ointment.
A few people mentioned the coffin they had chosen. Amanda said that her eldest son had chosen a biodegradable coffin for Lori because that is what he would have liked. Steve’s sister left instructions about her own funeral. She wanted a simple coffin because she wanted to be cremated (see ‘Suicide notes
Planning the flowers or decorations, the music, the readings, and the tributes
Most people were heavily involved in planning the funeral, though a few said that they were distraught at the time and so others had planned it.
Some people had particular worries. For example, Susan was worried because her son had not been christened, and she was not sure if he could have a church funeral, but the vicar reassured her.
Brenda and her family asked people to come to the funeral in bright clothes. They wanted the church to look lovely and decorated it with flowers. Amanda put photographs of her son in the church so that everyone could see what Lori looked like. She also put brightly coloured sheets of paper in the church so that people could write down anything they remembered about him. Linda was pleased that her daughter’s school teachers put some of Chloe’s art work in the church. Stephen projected a photograph of his wife onto the wall of the church, which people liked because they felt she was in the church with them during the service.
People often chose the music and the readings with enormous care - they wanted a perfect funeral.
Some people chose music that was tragic and seemed appropriate, others chose favourite songs of those who had died, or which seemed to represent the of the person's life. Lucy, for example, chose “The Gambler” for the final song because her partner had loved gambling. Susan had a recording of her daughter singing songs she had written herself. She played this during the service, so her daughter was heard singing at her own funeral. Melanie chose the hymns that she and her husband had had at their wedding.
Most people asked a close relative, friend or priest to give a tribute or talk about the person who had died. Some people made their own tribute, though many decided not to speak because they feared they might ‘break down’. Amanda said that the greatest thing about the funeral was that the person who spoke about Lori really loved him. During some funerals several different people spoke a few words, either in the church or later at the wake.
The wake, the ‘social gathering’ or the ‘funeral party’
After the funeral there is usually a social gathering, when people can talk and reminisce about the dead person. People usually provided refreshments. One woman we talked to had asked a catering company to bring what they thought was appropriate. Some people said that it was good to meet people and to thank them for coming. A few people said they really enjoyed the ‘party’ (see Interview 31, Stephen’s account above), but others found it very hard to talk to people and wished they had had a quiet time alone.
Susan was happy to talk to people after the funeral, but regretted inviting people to the house before the funeral of one of her sons. It was difficult to make conversation then.
Some people want a funeral director to organise most aspects of the funeral. Other people want to have much more control over what happens and plan it themselves. The Natural Death Centre
is a charitable project which provides independent funeral advice in the UK. The centre provides information on all types of funeral, but is particularly helpful for those who wish to have an inexpensive, family-organised, and environmentally friendly funeral.
One woman we talked to said that the family had decided not to have a funeral for her father. He had had an assisted death in Switzerland.
For more information on assisted dying see Dignity in Dying’s websites.
Last reviewed October 2012.
Last updated October 2012.