It is has been happening throughout human history. At some time, sadly, it will happen to you too.
Death may be a difficult subject to discuss, but like many a difficult subject, frank speaking might help to clear the air and leave you feeling considerably more relaxed when your cards are put on the table and your options considered carefully.
This guide is designed to help you do just that – to consider your options, come to decisions about the way you want your death to be handled, the funeral arrangements you want to be made, and to put in place plans to make sure that your wishes are carried out.
The guide starts off by considering one of the big worries that many people might face in planning for their funeral – which may still be many years ahead – funeral costs.
Having examined some of the ways you might deal with your worries about funeral expenses, you may be more comfortable about arranging the type of ceremony you want. This guide reviews some of the different types of funeral service that might be available.
Gone are the days when the laying to rest had always to be a more or less standard wooden coffin to lower into the ground. Caskets come in all shapes and sizes and are made from a wide range of different materials in today's world.
Similarly, churchyards up and down the land and filled with headstones and memorials that are more or less one of the same kind. Today you might choose from very many different ways of creating a permanent memorial with which your loved ones may pay their respects.
Above all, though, and to put the otherwise sombre business of arranging your funeral into its proper perspective, this guide insists that the arrangements you make will not mark your death but will be a fitting celebration of your life.
Arranging a funeral – the costs
In today's world of ever rising costs and greater and greater demands on any money you might have, it is by no means unreasonable to worry about you or your loved ones finding the cash to pay for the funeral you want.
Indeed, worrying about the cost of a decent funeral is something that has concerned many people throughout history. As early as the first century BC, a Roman general instituted “burial clubs” so that when a soldier was killed in battle or died, the savings were used to pay for his burial.
In this country, the formation of friendly societies during the 18th and 19th centuries, together with the first appearance of life insurance policies, came about solely in order to provide the funds for a decent burial.
Indeed, some people today might still be holding on to a life insurance policy as a way of ensuring that the funds are there to pay for a funeral when they die.
The world has changed and things have moved on since Victorian times of course. Some of the drawbacks of using a life insurance policy to pay for your funeral arrangements have become clear:
- the insurance settlement is paid directly to your beneficiaries, who have the responsibility for interpreting the details of your last wishes;
- the monies may not be made available until several weeks after your death – meaning your family still have to pay for the funeral costs initially;
- more important perhaps is the risk that, after the ravages of inflation and ever-increasing prices, the life insurance you arranged proves insufficient to cover the costs of the funeral arrangements you had intended and planned.
Pre-paid funeral plans
A more focussed way of ensuring that the costs of your funeral arrangements are covered in advance is through a pre-paid funeral plan. The advantages include the following:
- the payment you make will pre-pay for your funeral directors costs in full and either offer an allowance for your cremation, burials, ministers and doctors fees or guarantee to pay them in full depending on the plan ;
- you can nominate your chosen local funeral director or let the funeral plan company take care of this for you, so you don't need to contact them; for the funeral that you have planned in advance, down to the very last details about the kind of ceremony to be held, the nature of the cortège, the conduct of any service and even the floral arrangements to be made;
- by making your payment in advance, of course, you are paying at today's prices, with your plans protected against any rising prices in the future;
- when choosing a national provider of pre-paid funeral plans, your payment is typically protected by being invested, so that it continues to meet any increased costs in future. Furthermore, if your nominated funeral directors encounter financial difficulties in the interim and are forced out of business, the national provider is able to divert your pre-payment to any alternative firm you care to choose.
Your local funeral directors may offer you a pre-paid plan. The drawback in making the arrangement with a specific firm, of course, is that if they go out of business during the years before your death, there may be no way of recovering what you have paid.
Types of Funeral Service
Throughout history, practically every society in the world has developed ways of honouring the dead at their passing. Every culture has its own way of celebrating the life of the deceased, respecting and remembering the life of the person concerned.
The word itself, funeral, comes from the Latin word “funus” - according to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia.
The form of funeral service varies not only from one culture to another, from one religion to another, but also between different denominations within the same religion and individual preferences within the same country.
Historically, the funeral has involved religious or non-religious rites, but secular ceremonies have also developed as a way of honouring the departed, mourning their passing, celebrating their life and offering support to grieving relatives and friends.
It might be helpful to review some of the main differences between types of funeral:
A helpful website on the costs and conduct of funerals in the UK, Funeral Costs Help, comments that the Church of England is happy to conduct a Christian burial for anyone, regardless of their having regularly attended church. Regular members of the congregation, however, may have some of the costs associated with the funeral – such as the burial and graveside service – waived.
There are other Christian denominations, of course, that conduct funeral services in the UK – the principal ones of which are the Catholic Church, Methodists and Baptists. Each denomination has slightly different religious ceremonies, with some for example favouring cremation over burial.
In such a cosmopolitan country, there are also funeral services and rites conducted for followers of faiths other than Christianity – such as Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh and many other religions.
Following the increasing secularisation of much of British society, non-religious funeral services have become more common and widespread.
These were discussed a few years ago in a report on the BBC website. Here it was suggested that:
- you might feel uncomfortable about any religious ceremony being arranged for you if you have not held such beliefs before your death;
- relatives or friends might not feel it right to attend a religious funeral service if you had not been at all religious before your passing;
- an alternative, humanist ceremony does not feature prayers or hymns, but those with particular religious beliefs might find it perfectly acceptable to attend such a funeral;
- alternative funerals – such as those organised along humanist lines – are not anti-religious and do not contain anti-religious sentiment, but strive simply to honour the dead and commemorate the life of a loved one.
In the same way that funeral services have changed, developed and diversified over the years, so too has the actual process of burial.
Traditional forms of interment continue, of course, but in terms of funeral plots, there are rather more options than any space reserved in a churchyard – more about funeral plots a little later in this guide.
A recent trend has been a concern to ensure that burials are “greener” - more sustainable and environmentally friendly. This has seen the spread of so-called natural burial grounds, usually in fields, woodland burial grounds or gardens, but which may also take many other different forms.
One of the leading exponents of green burials is the Natural Death Centre and the Association of Natural Burial Grounds which it promotes.
According to the website of Funeral Inspirations, some 400,000 cremations are made in the UK each year.
As important as the service of cremation itself, of course, is the dispersal of the ashes in a way that honours the deceased's wishes and gives mourners a chance to say a final farewell.
No longer are the only options the scattering of ashes in a garden of remembrance at your local cemetery or their burial on any piece of land for which the owner has given permission.
Whether arranged by yourself or through a specialist company engaged to do the job for you, there are now all manner of ways in which ashes may be dispersed. To highlight just a few, these include:
- an aerial scattering on the wind – http://www.ashestoearth.net/;
- or scatter them even higher, into the stratosphere - http://www.stardustashes.com/;
- scattering at sea is an appropriate solution for an island race, all you need is a boat – or contact http://www.scattering-ashes.co.uk/;
- going out with a bang in a sky bound firework – http://www.heavensabovefireworks.com/; or even
- have your ashes blown from a shotgun – http://www.caledoniancc.com/.
Types of Coffins
If your thoughts are turning to the type of coffin or casket in which you want to be laid to rest or cremated, these fall into two very broad categories – the traditional and the non-traditional.
The traditional coffin is made out of wood. Even here, though, environment considerations are important and many manufacturers (such as JC Atkinson in this country) make a point of ensuring that only timber that has been produced under Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) approval is used.
For reasons of economy, rather than a solid wood coffin you might instead choose a semi-solid one, veneered or wood effect casket.
It is with respect to non-traditional coffins, however, that there has been a recent explosion in the range of choices with which you are now presented. Some of the materials might surprise you and include:
- British wool – wool is probably one of the most environmentally friendly materials used in these hand-made caskets, lined with cotton and internally strengthened with recycled cardboard, so that every last piece of it is biodegradable;
- Wicker and willow – as well as being very eco-friendly caskets made from wicker or willow also tend to be reasonably priced;
- Bamboo and banana– these are also naturally sustainable materials used in the manufacture of coffins which are designed to have minimal impact on the environment and which may be sourced from Fair Trade suppliers;
- Pineapple leaf – naturally biodegradable, of course, are coffins made from pineapple leaf;
- Cardboard and papier maché – cardboard is quite widely used by many manufacturers of alternative, eco-friendly coffins, but relatively new to the scene, and capable of producing extraordinarily creative shapes and designs are those made from papier maché.
According to the natural burials website Clandon Wood, the average price of a burial plot in the UK rose by 69% between 2007 and 2013. Furthermore, by 2030 almost every cemetery in London will be full to capacity, warns Facing Bereavement.
Little wonder, therefore, that churches and local authorities are finding it increasingly difficult to meet the demand for additional funeral plots.
There may be a lot to be said for getting in there early, whilst there are still choices to be made, by buying your burial plot now.
What's likely to be involved?
Your first decisions are likely to be about the part of the country in which you want to be laid to rest. Do you want to be buried in the city, where friends and relatives may come to pay their respects without travelling too far? Or would you prefer the tranquillity of a resting place in the country? Is it important that your burial plot is in the consecrated grounds of a church or do you prefer the secular nature of a local authority cemetery or other private burial ground?
Having selected the plot you want in the grounds you have chosen, there is the question of buying it. If this is at a cemetery run by the local council, then you are likely to be advised that, strictly speaking your purchase is not of the plot itself but of the right to the exclusive use of it for a given period – typically somewhere between 25 and 100 years.
Once again, if it is a plot under the management of a local council, you may need to pay more if you are not a resident of the area at the time of your death.
The purchase of your rights to use the burial plot may be described as the Grant of Exclusive Right of Burial. The concept of exclusive rights of burial is the subject of legislation still in force and titled the Cemeteries Clauses Act of 1847.
Types of headstones
One of the things likely to strike you as you wander around any cemetery is just how old are many of the headstones. Typically made out of granite, limestone or marble, they represent a lasting memorial for generations of your family and loved ones to visit.
In short, therefore, it is important to choose your headstone with care and with a thought for the many years it will be there in your name.
Headstones are not the kind of thing you want to buy “off the shelf” but that has tailored and personalised to your specific requirements. To help you through the type of decisions that may need to be made when choosing your headstone, you might want to refer to the Headstone Guide.
The guide refers to the many features that distinguish one headstone from another, including:
- upright – probably the most familiar and traditional memorial carved from limestone, granite or marble and set in a concrete base;
- flat – flush with the ground or slightly angled along one edge and typically made from granite or from bronze;
- kerbed – also known as ledger markers, which enclose the full dimensions of the plot and allow space for subsequent personal touches by those who come to pay their respects;
- cremation memorials – typically a granite headstone holding a separate container or containers in which cremated remains may be placed;
- memorial bench – a traditional bench which is designed to hold a separate container or containers holding cremated ashes;
- materials – when choosing your headstone materials (generally limestone, granite, marble or granite) it is important to keep in mind any restrictions imposed by the management of the cemetery (whether a church or the local authority);
- finally, you may want to choose the finish for the stone you are using – polished, honed or pitched, for example; and
- the memorial inscription you want the headstone to bear.
A headstone memorial, however, is no longer the only way of commemorating and celebrating the life of the dearly departed.
There are a number of considerably more unusual, exciting and celebratory send-offs and lasting memorials that you may wish to arrange. Here are just two examples:
If you want to go out with a real bang and the appreciative cries of “oh and ah” from your assembled throng of mourners, why not release your ashes in a spectacular firework display?
This is likely to be a display that stays in the minds of your friends and loved ones for many years to come and can be designed around the colours of your choosing and choreographed to your favourite music.
Burial at sea or the scattering of your ashes on the waves might make it difficult for some of those you leave behind wishing there was some more permanent, lasting memorial.
For the past thirty years or so, therefore, at least one company has been organising the incorporation of urns of cremated ashes into an underwater reef on the seabed.
Urns are encapsulated in what is called a Reef Ball and lowered into the sea to form part of a special man-made reef – a fixed location which can be remembered, envisaged or even visited by those loved ones left behind.
Another idea could be a Space Burial!
For more ideas you may wish to read the ‘Memorials’ section of this guide.
Funerals may be traditional and little changed in the way they have been conducted in the past two thousand years or more; but they can also be entirely different, not only in the form of service conducted to celebrate the life of the deceased but in the very handling of the last remains, the types of coffin or casket used and the memorials laid or celebrations held as a lasting reminder.
Your own funeral should be an affair in which you have played a major role in planning – both for your own and for your loved ones' peace of mind. The sooner you start planning, therefore, the sooner you may rest assured that when the inevitable happens, the ceremony goes exactly as you had intended.