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Family participation in a funeral
There is a wonderful book, written by Jane Morell and Simon Smith (which we thoroughly recommend), full of practical, easy-to-read and informative guidance...
"we need to talk about the funeral - 101 practical ways to commemorate and celebrate a life"
We have invited the authors, Jane and Simon, to provide families with some examples of how a family can participate in the funeral of a loved one. These points are amongst the 101 ideas included in their beautifully illustrated and book...
If you have chosen, or are thinking about, a woodland burial it is possible that you would like to know more about how you can be involved in caring for your loved one after death and how to make appropriate choices when preparing for the ceremony. You can be involved in many aspects of the preparations for the funeral, and this involvement can give you opportunities to talk about the person who has died, share memories and reflect on all they meant to you. Where you are uncertain, your funeral director will be able to help you.
At the time of death
Remember, there is no hurry to arrange everything straightaway. Being organised and making clear decisions are difficult when you are bereaved. Giving yourself time to make the best decisions you can will help you. Even when a death occurs with some warning most of us are surprised by the sense of shock and ensuing turmoil of complex emotions.
When someone dies it is natural to rush into taking decisions, but if you can take more time you are more likely to make the right choices for you. The most valuable first thing you can do is to ask someone to help and support you, and to take up genuine offers of assistance. With the right assistance you should be able to:
Work out what you want without feeling pressurised
Stay as much in control of the process as you can
Get what you want without overspending your budget
Look after yourself during the period between death and the funeral
Create the funeral you want
Three traditional funeral rites ...
1. Spending time with the person after death
You may feel that you would like to participate in caring for the body of the person who has died during the time leading up to the funeral. You have choices as to how they are looked after. Until relatively recently, it was commonplace to bring them home, as is still the case in many countries and religious traditions. Now that the dead are so neatly and quickly tidied away, many people have become unfamiliar with them and fear them.
Some who spend time with the body, tending and caring for them, praying for them and sitting with them, find their view of death is profoundly changed as they gain a sense of the life or soul leaving, perhaps to continue its journey. Being faced with an empty shell that once held the life of the person, in its stillness and final peace, can be a profoundly moving experience, particularly if the person had suffered pain or injury before dying. Fear of the body dissipates and an understanding of what it is to die, grows.
2. Dressing the person in their favourite clothes
People often used to be buried in their Sunday Best. If you wish, you can dress the person in their favourite clothes or ask your funeral director to help you. Increasingly clothes and shoes are made with man-made fibres which will not be acceptable to natural burial sites or crematoria, so if you are choosing clothes, they should be made from natural materials like wool, cotton, silk, leather and linen. You will need someone to help you. Rigor mortis will set in six hours after death, but will gradually wear off after twenty-four hours, so it is easiest soon after death, or a day later. Always be very gentle when moving or turning a body.
3. Holding a vigil
The ritual of keeping a vigil for the recently departed is as ancient as mankind, but often overlooked in our daily rush to keep life ticking along as normal. A vigil could be held at your local church or place of worship or at home, for a few hours or a few days, immediately after death or the evening before the funeral ceremony. Simply inviting family and friends to sit with the body to mourn, reminisce, pay their last respects and take comfort from each other in a friendly and welcoming environment, where you will not be interrupted or rushed, can create a heart warming and straightforward ritual where memories and emotions are shared.
You could have some time for readings, silence, prayers and meditation as well as time for talk. It is lovely to create an atmosphere by lighting candles and incense sticks, and perhaps having some soothing or inspiring background music. We recommend a plentiful supply of tea and biscuits. Some vigils are more formal, depending on your spiritual or family traditions, and led by the head of the family or a minister. They can be held with the coffin open or closed, depending on circumstances and your wishes. It would be best to ask your funeral director for advice.
The Funeral Ceremony
We need good funeral ceremonies and rituals in order to understand our loss and the maelstrom of feelings associated with such loss. It is only then that we can accept, let go and feel our own sense of being in the new order of our world. A good ceremony illuminates the life of the person who has died. This is the last act, the final curtain, a chance to speak clearly, and when we do, we have stories and memories to give us warmth and nourishment in times of need.
Playwright, theatre director and ordained priest, James Roose-Evans, says in Passages Of The Soul - Re-discovering The Importance Of Rituals In Everyday Life:
all great faiths have precise rituals for the dying and the dead - what rituals do we have to offer to those of no specific faith or tradition A ritual is a journey of the heart which should lead us into the inner realm of the psyche, and ultimately, into that of the soul, the ground of our being. Rituals, if performed with passion and devotion, will enhance our desire and strengthen our capacity to live. New rituals will evolve but the ancient rituals and liturgies are also capable of rediscovery as we learn to make them our own.
Three points to consider when arranging a ceremony
1. The independent funeral conductor
Vibrant and relevant ceremonies, wherever they are held, manage to integrate traditional and new, religious and secular. This is not about choosing between them, or replacing one with the other, but finding a place where they can unite.
A ceremony which reflects the diversity of spiritual views and beliefs of the person and their family can be put together and held by an independent funeral conductor, a friend or family member, and this would most likely be held in a non-religious location.
If you would like a ceremony in your place of religion, but also want the ceremony to include secular influences you will need to discuss this with your minister and often this will be possible.
If you have no specific faith or tradition, and independent funeral conductor will act as a conduit through which views and beliefs may be expressed in a ceremony. She or he can be very flexible, understanding and supportive. She will work closely with you to understand the life and relationships of the person who has died and to explore and shape the type of ceremony the family would like. She will hold the focus of the ceremony on the unique life and death of the person. At a time when the family is in a state of despair and dependence, the conductor offers the security and inspiration of beautiful, heartfelt words, music and ritual as well as hope where none seems to exist.
2. A beautiful ceremony space
It may be that you wish to hold the ceremony away from the graveside but not in the church. It is true that when we put aside the bustle of everyday life for a short while and step into a beautiful space that has been prepared for a ritual, we are able to connect to what is important, what is sacred. If a group has gathered to set the scene thoughtfully and appropriately it is possible for a deeper and more meaningful ceremony to occur. The desired effect is that there is no doubt that you are stepping into a ritual space, which is different and apart from our everyday world.
For example it is possible to hold ceremonies in pubs, village halls, at home, on a boat or in a yurt. Remember to ask the proprietor whether it is OK to have the coffin present and if so is there good access for the coffin to enter and to leave.
3. The bearers and processing with the coffin
Processing the coffin places a funeral in its local community and until the 1950s it was commonplace to process the coffin from home to the church or the funeral director would walk in front of the hearse at least some of the way.
If you are to process a long way, choose a coffin that is not too heavy e.g. willow, bamboo or cardboard.
Make sure the bearers are familiar with the route to be taken notify the local police of the time and route you wish to process appoint a few willing people as traffic marshals if you are going to process along streets.
An easier method of processing with the coffin is to carry it low with straps, or strap it to a stretcher or long poles, which spreads the weight, allows the bearers more room and a secure hold.