Have you ever experienced the death of someone you love and realised that you have no idea what was to be done next? Or found out just how many decisions (and paperwork) needed to be taken care of – whilst reeling with grief and shock?
I had these exact experiences and they moved me to become an end-of-life planning facilitator so I could inform and support people in knowing what lies ahead when a person dies and being as prepared as one can be.
I would like to start off by saying, that when a person dies, you do not need to use the services of a funeral director, it is not a legal requirement. You can actually organise the funeral yourselves.
You don’t even have to hold a service.
The only legal requirement is that the body needs to be “disposed of” ie cremated or buried in a legal way and be unexposed.
You can even keep the person’s body at home and prepare them for their funeral.
Caring for the person after death
In days not so long ago, it was commonplace to keep the person’s body at home after they died, washing and preparing them for their funeral. Family and friends would be there to keep vigil, eat and drink together, and grieve and share stories together. And this is how many cultures still do it today.
Indeed in the UK, people actually died at home much more frequently and were taken care of by their families and community.
However today with medical advancements in being able to prolong people’s lives – more people die in hospitals and nursing care facilities, coupled with the fact that our lifestyles have changed dramatically in terms of living with extended family and the busyness of the 21st century.
We have lost touch with this knowledge that was passed down through the generations in taking care of our loved ones when they die.
There is no legal limit to how long you can keep a body at home after death. However, it does depend on the condition of their body at the time of their death and how quickly the body decomposes. A funeral director may suggest embalming the body to enable this for a longer period (but if you are planning on natural burial, embalming is not allowed – see more below)
The room needs to be kept well-ventilated and windows closed (to keep out flying insects), and you can use icepacks to keep the body cool and slow down the process of decomposition. You can also hire a ‘cooling plate’ from a funeral director.
It is good to talk with the nurses who were involved with the care of the person who died or work with a supportive funeral director to see how best to proceed with this.
Depending on your religious and spiritual beliefs – this may influence your decisions around how you wish to be cared for.
You may wish to let others decide or choose for this to take place at funeral directors as often caring for others in sickness and death can be both physically and emotionally exhausting. It takes a village so the saying goes…
I have experienced both of these situations, and it really does depend on the circumstances and support you have.
For example, in caring for a dear friend up until her death, and having the opportunity to wash her body, which was such a deeply moving experience. It felt sacred, a ritual of honouring her. It felt so natural that we should be the ones caring and preparing her for the next stages, and not someone who didn’t know her.
I found it to be a very healing experience in terms of processing the grief by being part of the process, rather than having the person’s body removed by the funeral directors and not seeing them again until the funeral as happened with my dad when he died. My mum’s body was brought back home after being embalmed at the funeral directors.
I wanted this for another dear friend – that is to have them at home after their death – but couldn’t because the body was not in a suitable condition and needed to be cared for at the funeral directors and kept in a cold unit.
Plus, I and my other friends were so exhausted after months of supporting them at their home and needing 24-hour care. They ended their final weeks in a care home where we – their friends – ensured they had plenty of visits and people around them. Read more about this.
You really can have a funeral your way, there are no limits on the type of service you have, (law abiding of course!) people can come in fancy dress, you can have a 300-strong choir singing, or just have an intimate affair with a few loved ones present. You can arrive in style, in a leopard print designed hearse, your own vehicle, or a horse and cart.
You can take the body yourself to the place of burial or crematorium.
When it comes to the funeral itself, you can take the person’s body in your own vehicle or hire a van to go to the crematorium or burial grounds. You can even decorate the vehicle.
For natural burials, the body must not be embalmed (otherwise known as ‘hygienic treatment’) which involves using highly toxic chemicals as this will contaminate the land.
If the person is having a cremation, and the person wore a pacemaker this will need to be removed beforehand by a funeral director.
Family and friends can carry the coffin together, known as pallbearing.
Service for the funeral
You can hold a funeral service at your home or hired venue
A service can be held literally anywhere, (with the landowner’s permission). It can be held in your own home or garden, in a beautiful venue, or out in nature.Or you can choose not to have a service at all, and have an unattended cremation or burial. You can make your own arrangements or have a funeral director do it, or work together with them.
You can be a celebrant for a loved one’s funeral
It is possible to take the part of a funeral celebrant and conduct the funeral yourself. You can design the service to reflect and honour the person who died. Or you can work with a funeral celebrant who will do this together with you. There are different types of funeral celebrants – civil and humanist. Civil celebrants are open to conducting faith and non-faith services, and humanist solely conduct non-religious/ non-faith services.
You can buy or make your own coffin and decorate it how you like, or have a burial shroud instead.
The range of coffins on the market now is vast with hundreds of models and designs to choose from coming in different materials and price ranges.
The cheapest option is a cardboard coffin or homemade which you can decorate however you feel to. It can be decorated with people’s handprints or photos, collages, artwork etc or homemade from recycled wood and decorated.
If making it yourselves, DO check (and double-check) this out with the crematorium or burial grounds beforehand, as they have specific requirements and measurements, and you don’t want the added distress of the coffin being refused on the day of the funeral.
I speak from experience here. I received a phone call from the crematorium at 4 pm the day before the funeral to say they couldn’t accept the coffin, as it was too big. (I did actually check with them beforehand!) I nearly had kittens, lol! All turned out well I am happy to say and we gave them a beautiful send-off.
The most expensive coffins I have come across in the UK are the American Caskets which were on sale at a whopping £38,000!! (Yes, you read it correctly!)
Eco-coffins made from all sorts of materials from banana leaf to wicker to bamboo are readily available. Interestingly some natural burial grounds don’t encourage bamboo coffins because of their resistance to water, therefore the breakdown of materials happens at a much slower rate.
I recently visited a natural burial meadow which was so peaceful and indeed natural with sheep grazing in the meadow. You could buy a plot in advance (with the option to set up a standing order to pay in installments) or at the time when needed. You can even have just the ashes interned (buried) It certainly made me rethink what I would like to happen to my body after I die.
Cremated Ashes – what to do with them?
I have met many people who have a loved one’s ashes sitting in a cupboard, or garage, not quite knowing what to do with them.
If you are opting for cremation and wondering what to you would like to have done with your ashes, there are so many options including having them flown to the moon, being set alight in a Viking ship, and etched into a piece of beautiful jewellery or in a vinyl record. Here are eight ideas to inspire you.
Whatever you decide on, having a conversation with your nearest and dearest is so very important both in terms of funeral planning and also all the other practicalities that need to be taken care of after someone dies. It will make it a more empowering experience for them at an extremely difficult time. Read how you can lessen the burden on others.
If you would like to find out more or have any questions then please do get in touch, so happy to help.