Catholic Herald, 21 July 1989
Readers who have arranged a funeral will find much of what I am to say obvious. Those readers will probably also agree that the task of the executor is made easier if the deceased has left simple instructions.
I hope to show that preparing for death in the practical sense is not morbid; moreover that it is prudent and responsible.
One assumes that the priest has been called. My parish priest tells me this is not always the case. Nowadays people tend to call first the ambulance or the doctor. Which makes one wonder how many Catholics die without the consolation of a final confession or the last sacraments.
Furthermore the priest can act as a lynch-pin in highly emotional circumstances, apart from being a source of immediate practical advice. If a family has been separated by distance, time or temperament – a funeral can be the ideal setting for a first-class family row. The presence of the priest helps to avoid potential confrontation.
After certification of death by a doctor, a funeral director will be called. This important professional will give advice, listen to your instructions and take charge of arrangements. He will also remove the body (if so wished) to his premises.
The funeral business rests above all on reputation. Any shadow or hint of malpractice would ruin a business as delicate as this. A good reputation takes years to build up – and only a whisper to destroy. Ask the doctor or priest to recommend a reliable firm if you haven’t used one before, thereby avoiding the “cowboys” recently exposed in the national press.
The temptation for the family to spend more on the funeral than they can reasonably afford is natural at a time when they would pay anything to show love and honour to the deceased. A reputable firm would not take advantage of these natural feelings. And a recommended firm implies due respect for the dead, and a meticulous execution of the wishes of the living. In my experience, most of the personnel involved in this sensitive, intimate service are skilled and sympathetic. Women are increasingly employed in the funeral business; particularly in reception.
My local funeral director, Mr Duckworth, a family man who has been in the business for more than 30 years, kindly helped me prepare this article, and readily answered my questions. He confirmed my suspicion that few people leave instructions for their funerals. His job would be easier if they did, provided those instructions are simple and precise. They should be kept separately from the Will (which may not be opened until after the funeral); the family should be aware that these have been written, and of their whereabouts.
To provide an example for readers, I discussed with Mr Duckworth my own funeral instructions, written some years ago. When someone dies, the first thing the funeral director needs to know is whether the body is to be buried or cremated. According to a recent report in The Times, 70 per cent now choose cremation, and I too have chosen that option. After my death my body is to be placed in a chipboard-with-mahogany-veneer coffin, the lid closed, and a Cross placed on top.
It usually takes three of four days to arrange a funeral. If a weekend or public holiday intervenes or if family have to travel home from abroad, it may take much longer. The strain of having the coffin at home in modern living conditions, where every room is in constant use, could be an unnecessary burden.
So my coffin will stay in the Chapel of Rest until the evening before the funeral when it will be taken to the parish church. The reception of the body into the church is one of the most comforting of the funeral rites, an occasion of real solace for the closest family and friends.
Many people find the Requiem and funeral an occasion of strangeness and dread. This can be helped by the family taking an active part in the liturgy: choosing the hymns; selecting and reading the scripture; joining the offertory procession; or reading the bidding· prayers.
My own instructions indicate which hymns I would like and which readings – but they are suggestions only, as I hope my family will make their own choice.
After the Requiem Mass, the cremation. The non-denominational chapel is impersonal and sometimes drab. This impression can be softened by choosing a favourite hymn and reading. The presence of the same priest who celebrated the Requiem Mass provides a link between church and chapel.
Don’t forget you can ask that the coffin remains stationary (instead of gliding away), and that the “theatrical curtain” remains open until the congregation leaves.
In due course my ashes are to be placed in a respectable container and taken northwards to my parents’ grave in a C of E churchyard. With the permission of the Vicar, and in the presence of the local Catholic priest, my ashes will be buried there.
It all sounds a bit of a marathon. The cost of this elaborate procedure will be in the region of £950, including two cars for mourners at the funeral and two press notices.
A very old friend has her instructions in her desk, and her shroud upstairs in a cupboard. Now aged 84, she “coped” with her first funeral at the age of 14. At the age of 18 she nursed her beloved mother through her final illness, and buried both her parents within a year. That, and working as a nurse through the Blitz, certainly contribute to her matter-of -fact approach to death.
But there is much more to it than that. “If you don’t believe in everlasting life, of course death frightens you” she said. Then she quoted the words of Pope John XXIII: “My bags are packed, I’m waiting to be fetched”.