The Cotswold Funeral Director on: No black by request

Jul 8, 2013
The Cotswold Funeral Director on: No black by request As a forward-looking funeral director, I’d say the key to arranging and conducting a good funeral lies in trying to gauge both the spirit and the aesthetic of each individual ceremony. That rule applies to traditional funerals as much as more contemporary send-offs. “Mother was always very conventional” is obviously the order to deploy the shoe polish, set the top hat level above the eyes, hold the shoulders back and lead the hearse down the road in a purposeful manner that invites other road-users to make way for The Late Mrs. Muggins’ funeral procession.

But equally, how incongruous would it have looked with someone dressed in top hat & frock coat leading a procession of bohemian-looking adults, their children carrying the musical instruments Grandma always loved to hear them play, all following a horse & cart carrying a flower-bedecked wicker coffin? The traffic got out the way just as quickly!

So sometimes it’s right to leave the black behind. For some funeral directors that means a huge step out their comfort zone. That’s never been an issue for me though. In fact I would’ve felt rather more self-conscious if I hadn’t blended in with the aesthetic of some of the funerals I’ve been involved with over the years.

But there’s a lot more to this than just “no black please.” The growth in personalised funerals has spawned a bewildering array of commercial options: everything from eco-coffins to alternative hearses such as horse-drawn carriages, vintage lorries and adapted motorcycle sidecars. Instead the challenge becomes to avoid, as so brilliantly described by sociologist Dr. Tony Walter of Bath University, falling into the trap of “mass produced individuality.”

Dr. Walter meant that eco-coffins, alternative transport and innumerable other options such as fireworks, dove releases, jazz bands, etc. should only be seen as relevant accessories, not ends in themselves. His point was that a contemporary coffin, an alternative hearse and accompanied by say, a dove release, won’t really create a personalised funeral. The challenge goes beyond just tangible items like coffins or transport, but to working with families at a more personal level, adding meaningful touches that cost nothing more than a little time and effort.

This can be very empowering. Whether you’re planning your own send-off or if you’re going to be responsible for someone else’s, you have more options than you think. You don’t have to be too way-out either. Black-with-a-twist often speaks louder than being completely alternative. I’ve got one funeral plan holder who just wants his ashes taken on a final journey in his vintage Rover car; another wants her coffin transported in her horsebox! You’re limited only by your imagination. Family bearers to carry the coffin perhaps? Or maybe it might be too much to expect a young grandchild to play their musical instrument during the service, but why not have a recording instead?

The very best example I can offer of a truly personalised funeral is that of a farmer’s wife. Her flower-garlanded, willow coffin was taken from the farm, down through the village to the church, on a tractor and trailer. As a newly married couple after WW2, she and her husband bought a farm in the village where they then spent their entire married life. When they moved into their farm they arrived with their belongings piled up on a tractor & trailer. I was shown the photo: a touching snapshot of a young couple very much in love, at the start of their new life together.

So, her children decorated the trailer and the coffin itself. Then, with their Father at the wheel of the tractor, they all walked in procession behind it through the village. Just as he’d driven his young bride to their new home, the elderly farmer drove his wife away from the farm on a tractor again for the last time. It was an almost unbearably poignant scene, but it was also a vivid celebration of a life.

All it took was for the family to be brave enough to say “Erm, Dad’s got this idea for the funeral…” and from that we could all work together to create something truly special.   

James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.

He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director”

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