“ Your views and personal experiences with non-religious funerals. „
Just a little warning before we begin, this may make you feel sad, but hopefully it should also make you smile because it's a celebration of life, so if you don't want to read on, I understand......
I feel compelled to write this review and have spent many an hour thinking about what and how to write before putting fingers to keyboard.
It's going to be long and I make no apology for this as you can't rush funerals.....
After watching Mum die slowly and painfully over 14 months, it was almost a relief when she finally gave up and took her last breath.
We gave her the usual Catholic funeral as per her wishes and finished off with a few drinks and nibbles in the Catholic Club.
What a depressing event ,especially as she passed away on Dec 13th 2005 so we found ourselves at her funeral a few days before Christmas, my lasting memory was searching for a funeral outfit to wear amongst all the ladies buying "party wear", that was sooo sad.
After Mum had passed away, we all held our breath, thinking Dad would follow soon and promising ourselves his funeral would be nothing like Mums.
But no, he went from strength to strength enjoying life in a lovely private "home", the care they gave him was second to none and as he was the only male resident with 10 female companions (who fought over his attention I must tell you!). I often joked about him having his own "harem", he just rolled his eyes at me.
A year on and he was holding his own even against the ravages of the dreaded Parkinsons Disease, his strength of mind constantly battled the tightening grip this awful disease had on his muscles.
We all started to relax as it felt like we had been holding our breath for a year and enjoyed many a walk with Dad in his wheelchair accompanied by much laughter as his wicked sense of humour never waivered.
As my sisters house was now complete in Mallorca it was decided to take Dad for a week as he was desperate to see it and have a swim in the sea.
Off he went with my sister and her husband and enjoyed a fabulous week in the sun, we even have a DVD of him swimming in the sea which I still can't watch at the moment but I know it will be a comfort in the future.
Plans were set for May 2008 for a "mass family" holiday in Mallorca with Dad as the guest of honour.
Sadly about 3 weeks after the holiday the evil pneumonia did it's worst and claimed my Dads life. What a shock!......
Even now almost 2 years later we are still in shock and can't quite believe he's gone.....
So, it's close to Christmas (Nov 2007) again and here we are organising a funeral once more merely a month off the second anniversary of Mums death.
I will describe Dad so you will get an idea of why we needed to "do" something different for him. He was larger than life, a total nutcase, he drove us mad and I can still her Mum "tutting" at some of his outrageous antics. He was born in Glasgow and endured a very poor life, joining the Navy younger than he should( he lied about his age) so he could earn some money. He saw out WW2 on various ships, managing to get demoted in the process as he got caught selling the Navy's blankets. He got his first pair of shoes upon joining up.
At any parties, he was the life and soul and could always be located on the dance floor attacking his next victim/dancepartner. My daughter summed him up at the funeral when she said(her own words)" Grandad took whatever life threw at him, set it on fire and threw it straight back". Strong words from a tender 15 year old, but they do sum him up wonderfully.
As Manchester United was his true Love, after us lot and Mum of course, we knew immediately which colour would /could only feature at such an event~ yes of course RED ~ over the years, he painted cupboards, staircases etc red.
you can imagine how much that impressed Mum!....
We decided we would officiate at the crematorium and assembled those brave enough to speak, sorted out the music, washed all the Man Utd shirts and scarves and away we went.
A crisp November morning dawned and as people gathered in the beautiful gardens at the crem, amongst the flowers and leaves glistening with the heavy morning frost, I felt quite uplifted and was determined to make this a celebration of Dads wonderful life. Seeing everyone clothed in Man Utd shirt,s or red jumpers/ tops or as Dad would have requested red knickers, assembled in his honour made us all smile.
We formed orderly lines as the funeral car crept slowly along behind the lone Scottish piper,in full Scottish attire complete with kilt, what a beautiful and fitting sound for my Dads final journey, but even the image of my Dad playing "the cushion" as he did many times whilst emitting the most awful screeching sounds, could stop the sudden flow of tears from Dad's own private "Red Army".....
Assembled and somewhat more composed, we waited our turn as my brother took to the lecturn and began the tale of Dads life, at various points we had his favourite records playing and my nephew, my daughter and I took our turn and spoke of the man we all knew and loved, at one point my daughter was so emotionally choked up I thought she was unable to complete her reading, but a big hug from me and a little time and she finished every word she had written, I was so proud of her and I know her Grandad was too.
My Auntie Eileen read a poem and then came my turn, I even managed to raise some laughs at some stories and memories I recounted and that felt very positive, yes lets laugh, it's a celebration of life....
I completed the spoken words with a poem by Robert Burns as I had been quoted them enough throughout my life.....
As my brother tied up all the lose ends he was interrupted by music, everyone turned to each other with a quizzical look, whats happening? I knew immediately Dad had called time(one of his favourite sayings was( you are a good turn, but, you are on too long), obviously, my brother was taking too long and Dad had intervened with the Manchester United Calypso song( its the oldest Man Utd song there is). Typical even in death, he had to have the last word....
Only two wreaths were bought as we felt the money was much better going to Dads favourite charity The Salvation Army they had given him many a hot meal in day's gone by.
We all ~approx 50~ after final tears were mopped up, kisses, hugs and congratulations were duly exchanged, drove to a local drinking establishment, what a sight we were ,any innocent onlooker would be forgiven for thinking an army of Man Utd hooligans had descended upon them.
Of course we had arranged some food and forewarned the landlords of our attire. A lovely couple of hours passed as we ate, drank and recounted many tales of Dads adventures and misadventure. Final hugs and kisses complete only the immediate family travelled back to my sisters house to plan the remaining part to Dad's final journey .
Fast forward to January 2008, it's freezing cold, blowing a howling gale and the rain is teeming down. Where are we? Huddled on a little island at the side of Angelsey ,North Wales if memory serves me correctly it's called Church Island and it hosts a church and grave yard.
We had struggled over the causeway buffeted by the wind whilst being soaked with enormous waves crashing against the walls and showering us with salty foam. All the while the rain relentlessly lashed down upon us. Not one's to surrender we continued on and climbed to the top of a steep hill ready to release Dads ashes to the sea.
All of a sudden at this sombre moment I started to snigger, then giggle and before I knew it I was hijacked by hysterical laughter, all my remaining family were looking at me astonished.
What was so funny?
The picture of us a herd of drowned rats clinging for dear life (so we didn't get blown away )to a large stone monument on a little island in the middle of a very angry sea, trying to scatter Dads ashes just seemed highly amusing to me and everyone else when I explained the reason for my laughter. I said I bet Dads laughing at us now and I could imagine him saying I should have made them climb Mount Snowdon and yes we would have done.
We decided it was too high up in such strong winds and after composing ourselves we climbed/slide down in the mud to ground level and finally released Dad to the elements ~WHAT A FEELING~, it really felt like we had set him free and I saw him in my minds eye dive high up into the air and then down into the swirling dark water below.
Even though we had waited in between gusts, Dads ashes managed to blow back on each one of us as if to give a parting kiss.....
We waited for the sea to calm a little so as not to drown us as we ran across the causeway to the mainland, mysteriously though as we made a dash for it a freak wave thundered against the causeway wall and managed to soak each and everyone of us~ Dad had the last laugh!
So to finish we all descended upon the "Ship Inn" and had a fabulous lunch, warmed and dried ourselves by the open fire, then completed the day with a walk, with the dogs along the beach in honour of Dad.
Hope I haven't made anyone too sad, it really was a positive funeral and was definitely fitting for us and my Dad.
Just remember, to a certain extent you can make the rules when it comes to funerals.
The awful part was~ a year to the day of Dads funeral I was stood at the front of a Catholic Church talking about one of my closest friends at her funeral, she was only 42, we went to school together. Strange life isn't it?......
Thankyou for reading my ramblings, hopefully this will help my heart to heal a little.
Dad was an excellent swimmer and Loved being in the water this is why we found ourselves on the island, coupled with the fact my sister had lived in Wales for 20 years or so, much of my childhood was spent in Norh Wales and this had been a favourite place for a walk with the dogs over the years. All this taken into account we agreed this was to be "The Special Place".
The completely "different" funerals for Mum and Dad were a necessity as Mum was a very quiet Lady(opposites attract) and she would have been mortified at the "shenanigans" that went on for Dad.....
"You can often judge a man by his funeral." (Stephen, my younger son)
Up until a couple of months ago, I would have been in no doubt as to what to do if I wanted some ideas about non-religious funerals. I would have consulted my cousin Boris.
Boris was not only a rich source of ideas about everything, but had direct experience in this field. At one stage during his multi-faceted progress through life (with Boris, you couldn't use so conventional a word as career), the devising and organising of 'alternative' ceremonies had been part of his stock in trade. I still remember vividly the offbeat, original and outstandingly enjoyable wedding he arranged for his brother Neville, although that must have been some thirty years ago.
Had he known he was going to die suddenly, I'm sure Boris himself would have scripted and stage-managed his own funeral in advance. Without doubt he would have wanted a ceremony, and to go out with a bang. Boris loved spectacle, and loved being among friends, and loved family gatherings - what better occasion to combine all three? He had, in truth, left instructions on just one small detail - of which more later - but not on the proceedings as a whole.
So it was left to others to arrange the event for him, specifically his widow Maggy and his son George. The responsibility could not have devolved into more capable hands.
* The Venue *
There was only one place Boris was ever going to want to be buried: at his home. Nearly forty years ago he and Maggy found an almost derelict cottage in a remote corner of northern England. Surrounded by a few of its own acres, it was perched on an isolated hilltop, with distant views of Pennine fells. Despite tight finances in the early days, and frequent long absences while they were travelling in pursuit of their theatrical work, they painstakingly restored the cottage over the years and extended it, converting outbuildings for use as studios and workshops. It was, and is, a beautiful place.
Being buried in your own back garden is perfectly legal, though subject to numerous restrictions that make it impractical in many cases. You, or rather, your surviving relatives, have to inform the police and the Environment Agency, and to obtain a Certificate for Burial from the local Registrar. The very isolation of Boris's home probably made his case easier than most - proximity to other dwellings can be an issue - but Maggy and George tied up the red tape very quickly, and the date was set for just a fortnight after the death.
Apart from sentiment, a home funeral also offers practical advantages. You don't need a plot in a churchyard or cemetery. You don't need to book a slot for the occasion at someone else's venue. You can dispense with the services of a funeral director. Finally, you can have the ceremony, if any, and the actual burial, and whatever accompanying social activity you want, all at the same time in the same place.
Arranging your own funeral in this way is not confined to the irreligious, of course, but it tends to suit us better. Believers generally have a preordained procedure laid down for them, to which they feel it proper to adhere, and tend to prefer to be buried in the graveyards consecrated by their faith. We non-believers, among the many benefits we enjoy by dint of disbelief, are free from such constraints.
* The invitation: *
"We have a date now. Sat 25th April at 1 p.m. We'll bring him out of his little 'office' lair, take him round the garden for a last time, and then pause in the paddock for a few words/songs, in the workshop if wet; then take him to the wood and put him in. Bunfight; maybe more words later, and more music.
"There will be a chance to say something, or sing, or whatever. Speak to George. Good old theatre friends Andy & Gill are mentoring.
"If you are able to come, it would be lovely to see you. The house is full, but there is camping space in the nextdoor field and an outdoor loo. And plenty of simple food before and after. Or I have a list of local B&B's. But don't worry if you can't; friends in faraway places are going to light a candle for Boris.
"We'll fetch Boris out on Friday and get him set up in the coffin which I and friends are going to make from green stripey bamboo, which grows abundantly here. George and his mates will have dug the hole. Paeder will play Boris's bagpipes.
"Go carefully; we are not young after all.
* The ceremony *
The day was overcast and blustery, but Maggy and George decided to chance the weather and stage the ceremony on the lawn. There wouldn't have been room inside for the gathering that had assembled, in any case. Certainly well over a hundred people, maybe two hundred, had found their way to the hilltop retreat. Boris, although never famous in the sense of being a household name, was well known and well respected among those who shared his various vocations, as well as by his family and friends.
The coffin, which had been borne that morning around the progress prescribed for it, waited on trellises in front of rows of benches. Skillfully crafted, it was lined with moss, rosemary and forget-me-nots, and Boris's body, clad in a robe of scarlet and gold, had been encased within.
George acted as compere. After a few remarks of welcome, he read one of Boris's poems. Did he emphasise the line "Friends achieve the constancy of stars" or did I imagine that? He then introduced in turn each of us who wanted to contribute.
Pete, a close friend of Boris and a fellow-musician, gave a brief outline of his life, listing just a few of the many words that could be used to describe him: "a poet, a script-writer, a stone-carver, a cook, an inventor, a tent-maker, driver, gardener, maverick, singer, piper, guitarist, samba-drummer, film editor, book-writer, mentor, teacher, photographer, water-colour-artist, friend to my children, a dandy, a body-boarder, a broken-nosed smiler, a pragmatic builder of things, performer, costume-maker, make-up artist, warm hand-shaking hugger, traveller, researcher, fire-builder and a garden-mower." The final reference was a poignant one; it was while mowing the very lawn on which we were all seated that Boris has suffered his fatal heart attack. Pete then sang a song, 'Out of Sky', inspired by a saying of Boris's about birds running out of sky in which to fly.
Next, I spoke briefly on behalf of the wider family, now being - an alarming thought - the oldest blood relative. Knowing that others would highlight the many talents and skills, I took as my cue Pete's "hand-shaking hugger" and emphasised Boris's warm and generous personality. I tried too to convey something of my admiration for the way Boris had lived life on his own terms, guided always by the lodestar of his own principles and intuition, with humour and tolerance of those with other principles, but without compromise. And with success.
Malcolm, a friend since university, told anecdotes of folk-singing, and of freezing in a wintry Morecambe Bay in pursuit of one of Boris's early exploits in film. Goffee, a clever clown, played a trumpet fanfare and released a balloon, which promptly lodged itself in the topmost branches of a nearby tree. Keith recalled further student memories. Gill, Andy and their daughter Sky sang a far-from-woeful ballad to Boris's "mossy eyebrows", as George had described them when a child. Peter, a neighbour, talked of Boris's vigorous contribution to the local community. Ian, another songsmith, sang a folk song with Boris associations. So many things artistic have Boris associations that it is hard to know where to start, or stop. John, Boris's long term theatrical collaborator, added more memories and a poem, witty, ironic and sad.
Sasha, daughter of Boris's novelist friend Adrian, sang - beautifully - a song entitled 'Children of Blake', making the shrewd observation that Boris's creative philosophy was very much in the tradition of William Blake, something that I had previously been too dense to appreciate. And Margaret Ann, Boris's niece, recited a poem that his death had inspired in her, simple but subtle, and very moving.
* A moment of silence *
* The Piper's Request *
Letter - in Boris's customary calligraphic handwriting - to his friend and fellow-piper Paeder, 2002:
"I hope you and yours are all well - as am I and mine. And I know it's a bit uncharacteristic of me, but when I heard the Queen Mum's piper playing a lament, I bethought me of my own mortality and thought I might request a favour. I've thought, ever since I played pipes, that Brian O'Duff's is the lament I'd really like to have played at my funeral. It's a quare job - musically - but I love it. So, the question is - will you do it? Incredibly slow and repeated at least 30 times - Black Bush to be dispensed throughout!
"Please say yes.
Love and coffins, B"
* Love and coffins *
And so, to the lament of the pipes, the coffin was borne to the grave, which George and his mates had carved from the earth with neat, geometrical precision. It waited gaping in a glade in the wood, a glade open at one end to afford a sweeping view of the northern landscape, a view that would inaccessible to the deceased, but not to those to might come to visit his resting place.
As we followed the coffin the rain began to fall and, by the time we gathered round the graveside, it was pouring heavily. This was a slight dampener, not only on our spirits, but also on the firecrackers that had been set and primed amid the moss with which the bottom of the grave was lined. Clearly, I was not the only one who thought that Boris would have wanted to go out with a bang. As it was, a muffled crackling had to suffice; at least it wasn't a whimper.
The coffin was lowered in, and each of us took turns to shovel a few spits of earth into the grave. Soon it was entirely filled, with an even mound bulging up proud of the surrounding grass, topped by an arrangement of bluebells, spelling out his name.
* The bunfight *
Black Bush was indeed being dispensed throughout to those who knew where to look for it, as was beer and wine. Many, though, were content to drink tea and devour the buns, scones and sandwiches that were laid out in great profusion in Maggy's workshop, which had been festooned with photos and mementos for the occasion.
The rain cleared, and we spilt out around the house and grounds, coalescing into amorphous clusters to chat and reminisce. As at all the best funerals, one gained new insights and understanding by exchanging and comparing reminiscences. As at all the best funerals, the mood quickly lightened, and people began to enjoy themselves. Beyond the hubbub of conversation, the many musicians present began to form themselves into impromptu bands.
We left towards the end of the afternoon, driving down from the hilltop to begin the long trek south. Many others were also leaving by then, but I know that some remained until late in the night, for eating, drinking, singing and mirth. All as it should be. It is, I sometimes think, no coincidence that the word 'fun' is part of the word 'funeral', macabre though the thought may seem. The last thing Boris would have wanted would have been a solemn, sombre or sober send-off.
* Alternative funerals *
Forgive me. I am conscious that this has been more about Boris and his particular burial than about alternative, non-religious funerals in general. But it seems to me that Boris's example, in death as in life, is somewhat inspirational. What it teaches us, or at least what it taught me, is the inestimable value of being true to one's own individuality and doing things one's own way, however odd, or even bizarre, others may find it.
Boris's funeral was exactly right for him, because it was arranged to be that way by those who loved him. Similarly, the quiet scattering of my mother's ashes by a party of her descendents that took place a few weeks later was exactly right for her; we knew this for certain since she had stipulated it in advance. My own advice, if I have any to offer in this review, is that it is worth setting out your wishes in advance, or at least ensuring that the arrangements will be in the hands of those who know you intimately. If you, or they, are stuck for ideas, there are plenty of sources - for example, assuming you want a non-religious ceremony, have a look at the British Humanist Association website, which also provides advice on the practicalities of funeral arrangement.
Of course, you may not care what becomes of your bodily remains after you're dead, in which case it would be waste of time to stipulate. But if you do care, and don't make your wishes known, well, that's your funeral.
Remembering Boris, musician, showman, artist, cousin and friend, 1941-2009.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2009