by Michael Carberry
Recently, one of my in-laws announced that he and his wife had decided that when they died, they would not have a funeral, since they were not religious and did not believe in an afterlife. The undertakers would simply remove the body and cremate it without fuss. He seemed to think my wife and I would be shocked because it would be a departure from the religious funerals which had been the norm on both sides of the family. I was certainly not shocked – indeed it would be hypocritical for non-believers to expect a religious funeral service – but I do find it rather sad. For me it is yet another manifestation of the increasingly common – and to my mind rather bizarre - notion that funerals are for the dead. They are not. It cannot be stressed too strongly that funerals are for the living!
Whether or not one believes in any kind of afterlife, once a person is dead, they are past caring about what takes place after they have gone or how their remains are disposed of. That is not true for those who survive them. The permanent loss of a parent, partner, sibling, child or close friend can be very traumatic. Even the passing of a public figure who we admire or respect can give rise to widespread grief as we saw with the death of the late Queen Elizabeth II or Diana, Princess of Wales. That is why, since prehistoric times, human beings have held funeral rites to mark the passing of members of the community. Indeed, it is one of those things that distinguish us as human beings and differentiate us from brute beasts. Such rites have varied enormously in different periods and in different cultures but they have always involved much more than simply disposing of the dead body.
That does not mean funerals need to be elaborate or expensive. One of the most moving funerals I ever attended was that of a young Arab student in Morocco who had drowned in a swimming accident. His mother was a widow and the family were not well off. The hearse was an open-topped truck and the plain wooden coffin was covered with a simple green cloth. The family members did everything themselves, including digging and filling in the grave, but all was done with great dignity including serving strangers, like myself, refreshments of mint tea with bread and honey. And, despite the differences of language, religion and culture, I was struck by the profound similarities to funerals I had attended in the UK, and other countries – the same grief, the same compassion and the same sense of the community coming together to support the bereaved family.
In my youth funerals were simple affairs. Undertakers were usually small family businesses passed down from father to son who often made the coffins themselves. The corpse of the deceased was clothed in a simple white shroud – clothes were too expensive to waste - and the reception after the funeral was often just a cup of tea and a sandwich in the church hall. But in almost every case such funerals were arranged by and for the bereaved family and the community. No one - unless one had the arrogance of a Winston Churchill - expected to organise his or her own funeral. So why have things changed? The reason, as ever, is money.
In the 1960s I remember laughing at a television programme satirising “The American Way of Death” in which “morticians” would display the corpse like a painted doll, in an elaborate coffin, decked out in their Sunday best, complete with makeup and surrounded by absurd quantities of flowers. I thought it ludicrous. But then some years ago something strange began to happen. American morticians started expanding their businesses into the UK. Many small, family undertakers were bought up by American firms who brought with them American business practices, including offering what in business-speak are known as “value added services” or what a cynic might regard as simply additional ways to extract money from grieving clients. It has now become the norm for corpses to be dressed in their best finery and we see ever-more elaborate funerals with Victorian style horse-drawn hearses and over-elaborate and often very sentimental flower arrangements. It is interesting to note that as religious sentiment has declined so the need for such secular manifestations of love and affection seems to have increased. Funerals are now big business.
But undoubtedly the biggest money-making wheeze of all has been to get people to pay for their own funerals in advance. This amounts to nothing less than an interest- free loan, often of thousands of pounds, given for an indeterminate period which is then invested at a profit. Multiplied across all the people who are persuaded to take up these schemes this adds up to vast sums of interest-free capital available at almost no risk. The companies concerned do not even have to wait for the person to die to make their profit – indeed the longer their clients live the better. Those targeted are typically elderly people often living alone and vulnerable to the blandishments of slick marketing campaigns, which highlight the high cost of funerals and the fact that the elderly relative does not want to put a financial burden on their heirs. But the fact is that very few people die without leaving enough to cover their funeral costs, and certainly not the kind of people who take out funeral plans – many of whom own their own homes.
Not surprisingly many insurance companies are now getting in on the act. Insurance-based schemes often involve the insured person paying for the rest of their lives, meaning they can end up paying many times the cost of their funeral. I was horrified to discover my late mother-in-law had taken out such a funeral plan. I persuaded her to cancel it. When she died many years later, we discovered that she had already paid enough into the scheme to cover the cost of her funeral. By cancelling it we had saved her thousands of pounds which she had been able to use and which would have gone in profits to the insurance company for doing absolutely nothing. For me such funeral plans are merely the exploitation of vulnerable old people and I was shocked to see that Help the Aged, a registered charity in the UK, had got involved in promoting such schemes as a way of raising funds.
Another inducement used by companies to encourage clients to part with money is offering them help to organise their funeral service so as not to be an inconvenience or worry to those left behind. To me, the idea that burying one’s dead relatives is somehow a burden or an inconvenience is frankly offensive. It is the last act we can perform for those we love to show both to ourselves and to those around us, how much they meant to us. Moreover, many people find that preparing for a funeral can itself be very cathartic. Deciding what kind of ceremony to have, the choice of readings or music obliges the bereaved relatives to think positively about the life and character of the deceased and is a great help in coping with their own grief. To take away that responsibility is to rob the family of something very precious. My wife was very upset when her mother announced that she had already organised everything for her own funeral. As the only daughter and eldest child my wife felt that should have been her special responsibility and something she very much wanted to do. Instead of which her role would be reduced to little more than that of a spectator. Although nothing was said, her mother must have come round to the same conclusion because, shortly before the old lady died, she said, “Oh, forget everything I organised. You just do what you want!”
Perhaps the most insidious justification for encouraging people to organise their own funerals is to appeal to their vanity by suggesting that they can determine “how they would like to be remembered”. People are remembered for what they do in their lifetime – not what happens at their funeral – especially if it is they who have organised it. We could all write glowing obituaries of ourselves, but what would those be worth, compared to those written by the people who really know us?
There are some people who will not be remembered; people who die with no one to mourn them or celebrate their lives. But these are usually those living on the fringes of society, homeless or destitute individuals, or sociopaths who, having been unloved and unloving during their lives, are unlikely to care what people think about them once they are dead. For most of us there is someone, hopefully lots of people, who will mourn our passing and wish to remember and celebrate our lives in a way that matters to them. That is what funerals are for.
So, despite my advancing years, I will not be taking out a funeral plan nor telling my heirs what they have to do with my mortal remains when I die. Why should I? After all, “It’s not my funeral.”