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My Business – planning your end of life!


1 Minute Read

Jane Duncan Rogers is the CEO of Before I Go Solutions. Her first husband died when she was 54 which led to awful grief but also the book Gifted by Grief which ultimately led to her end of life planning social enterprise. She lives in Scotland, got married again in between lockdowns plus she and her new husband are building not only a new life but a new eco-house too. www.beforeigosolutions.com

My worst fear had just happened – my husband was dead, we’d had no kids, and I was left alone in the world. Aged 54, too old to be a young widow, too young to be an old one.

That was how my 2012 started. Not a good place, and certainly not a place where I could ever have imagined what has happened since.

In those early months, I knew, in theory, there would be a blessing somewhere in his death, but I wasn’t in the least interested in finding it. As grief took its grip on me, and I was tossed and turned by its waves, I just hung on, doing my best to trust that I would survive. And at that time, I wasn’t even interested in surviving that much – I didn’t actively want to die, I just didn’t want to be alive.

But now, I can honestly say I am grateful for my husband’s life AND his death. For without them both, nothing of what I am doing now would be happening.

Three years after he died, I published my memoir, Gifted by Grief. By this time, the blessing in disguise had shown itself, the writing of the book had proved cathartic, and I was in a good place in myself.

Readers’ reaction to the book showed that they too wanted to answer the questions I had asked my husband a few months before he died. Things like ‘what are your passwords’, ‘what kind of coffin do you want,’ and ‘how do you want your body dressed’. Not easy to answer at the best of times and certainly not when you know you are on the way out. But we had plucked up the courage and amazingly, had enjoyed working on what turned out to be our last project together, despite the title being ‘Philip’s end of life plan’.

Little did I know it, but this was the start of what has become a fully-fledged social enterprise Before I Go Solutions, a training organisation where we train others to become accredited End of Life Plan Facilitators and provide products and programmes to help people put a good end of life plan in place.

I had previously run training courses and had in the back of my mind to train others, but this was brought forward a year when several people asked if they could train in what I was doing. Hence our pilot in 2018 for what is now our End of Life Plan Facilitators Programme, with the 8th intake for the training about to start as I write.

I had a lot to learn about being a social enterprise though. Despite being eligible for grant funding because of our status, it took a while to get my head around the fact that there are funding opportunities, and what social impact really meant in the eyes of possible funders.

I thought that by the very nature of the business, we were making a social impact – after all, everyone has to die, it’s a community event, and therefore an impact on society. But funders needed to see a more specific benefit than that. Eventually, we were successful with a lottery-funded bid for £10K to bring Dead Good events to Scotland, and the development of a pack of End of Life Planning cards.

We have also developed the Philip Rogers Scholarship Fund, enabling those from disadvantaged backgrounds to become Facilitators, bringing this work to their communities too.

One of the ongoing challenges with this business has been the need to educate people about the importance of doing this work at all, and specifically what an end of life plan actually is.  Most know about wills and funerals and the importance of doing them, and at the very least knowing if you want to be buried or cremated. And even then, a significant number have not attended to these matters (fewer than 4 in 10 adults in the UK still do not have a will in place, with statistics showing that there’s has been only a 1% increase in will-making between 2019 and 2020, despite the pandemic).

But an actual end of life plan means you not only have a will sorted, but also both powers of attorney; your funeral organised in all its details; your digital life planned (because you’ll still be alive online years later unless you state otherwise beforehand); your house decluttered (aka death cleaning); your advance care plan in place (your preference for treatment towards the end of your life); and the way your finances and household run – all documented and in one place.

And even when people realise that actually, this is a big project (after all, planning a funeral can be at least as big an event as a wedding, and yet we are supposed to plan that in a few days, compared to at least a few months for a wedding), they often just don’t do it.

Like Susan, who told me ‘I bought your second book, Before I Go, intending to go through it and complete everything. But 6 months later and I haven’t touched it. I need help’

Or Regina who said ‘I’ve started but I’ve got stuck with what to decide about how I want my end of life to be ideally, especially as my family are not forthcoming in talking about this with me’.

Or Saul, who shyly attended one of our courses as a lone man, and expressed his overwhelm in beginning to deal with the numerous build-up of possessions over the past 40 years, leading to anxiety, indecision, and worrying about what would happen amongst his kids when he was gone.

These are some of the scenarios that our Facilitators now help with.

This journey so far has been one of ups and downs, with a lot of dogged determination on my part to fulfil our mission of having an end of life plans become as commonplace as birth plans.

Now, my time is focused on developing the Facilitators Programme, working with organisations to help their staff become more at ease with talking about end of life to their customers, and learning how to scale a young business so it becomes sustainable for long after I have gone.

This is quite a challenge for someone who has been used to being a solo professional for most of her life!  We now have a team of administrative staff, all working part-time, and a crucial part of the workings behind the scenes.

Plus a growing international community of licensed Facilitators (we’ve trained over 70 now, and about 25 of those are actually practising). And of course, I am a director on the Board, of what is now the leading training company in this arena.

For me personally, I feel as if Philip and I are still in the business together somehow. As a psychotherapist, he was intent on helping others have a better life – and in a strange sort of way, he is still doing this from beyond the grave. This is definitely an unforeseen blessing!

Welcome Abroad the Funeral Revolution


1 Minute Read

Advantages of Age hears from Kate Tym and Kate Dyer, the founders of the UK’s first Coffin Club.

It’s a sunny morning in September in a room above an art gallery in Hastings. There are laughter, chat and a feeling of warmth and camaraderie which seems slightly odd considering each of the five people involved are busily decorating their coffins. This is Coffin Club UK where death is always top of the agenda and yet no one seems very sad! Kate Tym and Kate Dyer, the founders of the charity, encourage clubbers to plan their perfect send-off and, if they like, bling up their coffins too. ‘We go through life planning each step of the way and then, when it comes to our funerals, we seem quite happy to just leave them completely up to chance,’ says Kate Dyer, cheerfully. ‘Yes,’ adds Kate Tym, ‘families find themselves, at a point of bereavement, having to make decisions about what mum or dad or sister might want and they’re not in the right place, emotionally, to start asking questions or thinking creatively. Coffin Club removes that anxiety as it means you get exactly the end of life celebration you want and you know exactly where every penny’s going.’

Funeral Directors, generally, like to offer a range of packages – it’s 20 minutes up the cremation, or a religious place of worship, to a very set format. ‘People don’t realise that funerals are actually very unregulated,’ says Kate Tym, ‘you can separate the cremation or burial from the celebration of life.’ ‘We’ve had send-offs in barns, village halls and even the upstairs room of a pub,’ Kate D says. ‘Simply by changing the setting, the whole atmosphere changes, too,’ she enthuses. Kate T says that by putting a brightly-decorated coffin into the mix it becomes part of the proceedings. ‘Guests aren’t afraid of it – they come up and look at it, touch it, pat it, have a chat with the person inside. Sometimes we leave a space where people can write messages to the person inside – they’re involved right up to the last moment.’

Coffin Club runs over six weeks, for one morning a week, and each week there is an invited speaker – forward-thinking, independent funeral directors, the manager of the local crematorium, a representative from the local hospice, the manager of a natural burial ground and a lady who did her own DIY ceremony for her husband just over a year ago. ‘She kept him at home for five days after he’d died,’ Kate T says cheerfully. ‘She really is our poster girl!’ Each clubber is given a funeral wish-list right at the beginning and fills it in as the weeks go by. So, from burial or cremation to music choices, to venues and readings and anything else they might fancy, not a stone is left unturned.

‘The reasons people come to Coffin Club are all different,’ says Kate D. ‘Some are all about practicality, they want to cost their funeral and have it all organised before they go, so that their family aren’t left with the job. For others, it’s more about coming to terms with the inevitable and finding that in itself empowering,’ Kate T adds.

Currently, in the UK, the average cost of a funeral is around the £4000 mark (https://www.sunlife.co.uk/how-much-does-a-funeral-cost-in-the-uk-today) and that’s not including the ‘do’ afterward, the flowers or the catering or any legal costs around settling an estate. Coffin Club wants to deal with funeral poverty, too, ‘We can get a much more personally-tailored funeral to come in at around the £2,500 mark. It can be done even more cheaply if you don’t use a funeral director at all, but that’s not for everyone,’ says Kate D.

‘Each time we’ve run the club we’ve had one person attend who is terminally ill,’ Kate T says. ‘That’s really hard, but also means a lot to us. Ashley came along wanting to be buried in the field at the back of his house, but wasn’t sure if that was even legal. It is legal and it’s really not difficult to arrange. Coffin Club enabled him to get exactly what he wanted.’ ‘He had the most fantastic celebration of his life,’ says Kate D. ‘We started in the village hall, which was packed. The service itself was full of music and lots of people stood up and told personal stories of their memories of Ashley. Without the crematorium time limit hanging over us, we were able to let the service take as long as it took, and at the end that was about an hour and a half. Then he was drummed across to the field where he was buried with family members helping to lower his coffin into the grave.’ ‘Ashley had actually been too poorly to decorate his coffin,’ Kate T explains, ‘so his family did it for him after he’d died. They covered it in maps of places he’d travelled to and tickets from gigs he’d been to. I think they found it a nice experience, talking about things he’d done and sharing memories.’ Kate D takes over, ‘Everyone came up and touched his coffin, wrote messages, talked to him – it was really very lovely.’ That’s the true validation of Coffin Club – someone who came along and got exactly the send-off they wanted and for it to not cost a fortune.

The coffins Coffin Club that uses are really innovative. They are flat-packed ply coffins that come in ten sections that are then put together with an Allen key. The Kates get them from a Dutch company called Coffin in a Box. ‘They have a really low-carbon footprint,’ says Kate T, ‘they’re made with virtually no waste, have low-emissions in combustion and bio-degrade really easily. Putting them together is pretty funny, too. Having been involved in making and decorating the coffin gives people a feeling of taking control.‘

‘We’ve had people’s kids come and help them, they laugh together whilst decorating their box, it’s a truly bonding experience and makes the whole thing less frightening. Of course, there is a very deep sadness when someone dies,’ says Kate T, ‘but celebrating their life and trying to capture some of the joy and energy they had when they were alive is about love and respect, too. It’s not about making light of it, it’s about caring deeply enough to give them a send-off that is totally about them.’

The decorated coffins have ranged from simple – painted white with a Star of David to much more decorative , for example, hot pink with unicorns and Elvis, to the jokey, for example, a plain box with This way up and Handle with Care stickers on it. ‘It’s not about how good they are, artistically,’ says Kate D. ‘It’s more the process… the thought behind them. It gets our Clubbers thinking about what’s been important to them during their lifetime.’ They range from an elderly Quaker who had a Quaker Oats themed coffin to Bev, who loves purple and went for a vibrant violet base coat. ‘A lot of the conversations happen while we’re decorating,’ says Kate D. ‘It’s a time when people share some of their deepest feelings because thinking about dying – brings these emotions sharply into focus.’

‘Coffin Club was born out of frustration,’ says Kate T. ‘We’re funeral celebrants and we were so depressed by the one-size-fits-all formula of most funerals that we thought there must be a better way. We want everyone to know that there’s a vast choice of send-offs available to them from the traditional Victorian gent in front of a limo hearse to skipping naked through a field with dancing girls and fire eaters!! If you know you can do anything at all and still want to go the totally conventional route, we’ll support you 100 percent. But, we don’t want people having 20 minutes up the cremation because they had no idea they could do anything else. Coffin Club is all about choices.’

Ultimately, Coffin Club is about people taking back ownership of their end of life celebrations. ‘We can’t believe the children of the 50s and 60s generations are going to go for the formulaic way!’ The Kates really believe, as a nation, we’re on the brink of a funeral revolution. ‘We’ve run three Coffin Club Master Classes so that people in other areas can learn how to set-up and run Coffin Clubs and are certain they will grown all over the UK.’ Coffin Club has been followed by a local documentary maker, Whalebone Films, for over a year and the BBC came and filmed in September too – there is a definite feeling of the tide turning. ‘We don’t believe respect is about how much you paid or what you wear. it can be about getting out a pot of paint and doing something that’s a labour of love.’

Coffin Club really is a fabulous initiative. As the Kates say: ‘We’ve got to start talking about death again as a nation. From the moment we’re born we’re all terminally ill. We need to bring death back into the every day and out of the scary, taboo place that it’s been for a long time now. If you talk about sex, you’re not going to get pregnant and if you talk about death, you’re not going to die. You’ll just be well prepared – Coffin Club is really just about thinking outside the box!’

 

www.coffinclub.org

www.coffininabox.com

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